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MR. PLAYBOY 

Hugh Hefner and the American Dream 


STEVEN WATTS 



WILEY 

John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 


For Olivia Claire Watts 


Copyright © 2008 by Steven Watts. All rights reserved 

Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey 
Published simultaneously in Canada 

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: 

Watts, Steven, date. 

Mr. Playboy : Hugh Hefner and the American dream / Steven Watts. 

p. cm. 

Includes index. 

ISRN 978-0-471-69059-7 (cloth) 

1. Hefner, Hugh M. (Hugh Marston), 1926- 2. Journalists — United States — 
Biography. I. Title. 

PN4874.H454W38 2008 

070.5092— dc22 

[B] 

2008009572 


Printed in the United States of America 


10 98765432 



The American citizen lives in a world where fantasy is 
more real than reality. . . . We risk being the first people in 
history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, 
so persuasive, so “realistic” that they can live in them. 

— Daniel Boorstin, The Image 


Humankind cannot bear very much reality. 

— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets 


Men look at women. Women watch themselves being 
looked at. 

— John Berger, Ways of Seeing 


The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, 
sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. ... So he 
invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year- 
old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception 
he was faithful to the end. 

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 


When an interviewer asked my mother whether she was 
proud of me, she answered, “Oh, yes, but I would have 
been just as happy if he’d been a missionary.” Later, 

I told her, “But Mom, I was!” 

— Hugh Hefner, interview with the author 




CONTENTS 


Acknowledgments vii 

Introduction: The Boy Next Door 1 

PARTI BEGINNINGS 

1 A Boy at Play 11 

2 Boot Camp, College, and Kinsey 34 

3 The Tie That Binds 49 

PART II ASCENT 

4 How to Win Friends and Titillate People 69 

5 Hedonism, Inc. 85 

6 The Pursuit of Happiness 105 

7 An Abundant Life 123 

8 Living the Fantasy 143 

v 



vi 


CONTENTS 


PARTIN TRIUMPH 

9 The Philosopher King 169 

10 The Happiness Explosion 187 

1 1 Make Love, Not War 206 

12 What Do Women Want? 228 

13 Down the Rabbit Hole 250 

14 Disneyland for Adults 272 

PART IV MALAISE 

15 A Hutch Divided 297 

16 The Dark Decade 323 

17 The Party’s Over 346 

18 Strange Bedfellows 367 

PART V RESURGENCE 

19 The Bride Wore Clothes 391 

20 All in the Family 407 

21 Back in the Game 426 

Epilogue: Playboy Nation 447 

Notes 455 

Index 515 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


I have accumulated many debts in completing this book over the last 
I few years, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge them. First, I would 
I like to thank all of the (male) acquaintances, associates, and even 
strangers who have rushed forward over the past few years offering to 
assist me with research, carry my luggage, double-check my sources, 
take dictation, or wash my rental car when I visited the Playboy 
Mansion. This outpouring of selflessness, generosity, and friendship 
has revived my faith in human nature. 

Several colleagues in the Department of History at the University 
of Missouri — Carol Anderson, Robert Collins, Catherine Rymph, 
Jonathan Sperber, and John Wigger — read the manuscript and for- 
warded many valuable comments and suggestions. Patty Eggleston, 
Sandy Kietzman, Melinda Lockwood, Jenny Morton, and Nancy 
Taube, departmental staff members all, provided various kinds of 
support and encouragement. A number of talented and discerning 
friends, including Armando F avazza, Cindy Sheltmire, Dick and Anne 
Stewart, Donald Tennant, Daniel Watts, Steve Weinberg, and, espe- 
cially, Patricia Ward Kelly, looked over the manuscript and offered an 
array of useful observations. Mary Jane Edele and Catherine Damme 
helped ease my burden during the early going by digging up articles 
and transcribing interviews. 

At John Wiley & Sons, my editor, Eric Nelson, expertly guided 
the manuscript toward its final form, while Rachel Meyers and Ellen 
Wright skillfully orchestrated its production. My agent and friend, 

vii 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


Ron Goldfarb, did his usual superb job of negotiating contracts, 
bolstering my spirits, and providing a sounding board on various 
occasions. He has my enduring gratitude for all he has done to boost 
my career as an author. 

The librarians of Ellis Library at the University of Missouri 
deployed their expertise to help me gain access to various materials. 
At Playboy Enterprises, Inc., in Chicago, Lee Froehlich and Jessica 
Riddle helped me navigate the company archives. During my research 
trips to the Playboy Mansion, the mansions staff treated me with 
great forbearance and kindness as I ransacked the files, pored through 
the scrapbooks, strolled the grounds, and took up more than my fair 
share of time at the copy machine. Among the many individuals who 
deserve my thanks, I note especially Steve Martinez, Norma Maister, 
Elayne Lodge, Joyce Nizzari, Trudy King, Amanda Warren, Alicia 
Roote, John Cailotto, Elizabeth Kanski, Rob Colin, Jenny Lewis, Dick 
Rosenzweig, and Mary O’Connor. A batch of new friends, includ- 
ing Elizabeth Granli, Ron McCabe, Jeremy Arnold, Lindsey Vuolo, 
Amber Campisi, Tiffany Fallon, and, especially, Alison Reynolds and 
Joel Rerliner, provided enlightening conversation and companion- 
ship. Many thanks go to that intrepid band of raconteurs on Monday 
evenings who taught me much about old movies, bad jokes, and sharp 
repartee: Keith Hefner, Ray Anthony, Rill Shepard, Chuck McCann, 
Richard Rann, Ron Rorst, Mark Cantor, Peter Vieira, Robert Culp, 
Johnny Crawford, and Kevin Rurns. 

Hugh Hefner, of course, deserves my profuse thanks. When I first 
approached him about this project, he graciously agreed to cooper- 
ate. He not only provided unprecedented access to his massive files 
chronicling the history of Playboy and his career, but gave me an 
opportunity to get an inside look at his life. He also kindly consented 
to sit for a battery of interviews, which eventually totaled nearly forty 
hours. He accepted the stricture that I maintain editorial control over 
the book, and while, ultimately, he took issue with some of my argu- 
ments and conclusions, he honored the agreement. For all of these 
things, and more, Mr. Hefner has my profound appreciation. 

Two people deserve my greatest thanks. My wife, Patti Watts, 
reacted with remarkable good humor to my dubious proposal for 
doing research at the Playboy Mansion, offering only the admoni- 
tion usually given to children at the toy store: “You can look, but 
don’t touch.” Subsequently, during innumerable conversations about 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ix 

Playboy, American society, men and women, sexuality, and many 
other subjects, she has shared a wealth of insights and ideas that 
have enriched the book. My daughter, Olivia Claire Watts, arrived 
unexpectedly during the middle of this undertaking. After causing 
her doddering father an initial bout of terror, she has proved to be an 
inexhaustible source of affection, amusement, edification, and won- 
der. She has caused me to think harder about all of this, and the book 
is for her. 




INTRODUCTION 


The Boy Next Door 


M ention of Hugh Hefner instantly evokes a host of images 
that dance through the imagination: visions of voluptuous 
women and uninhibited sex, mansion parties and celebrity 
entertainers, grotto hot tubs and round beds, smoking jackets and 
sleek sports cars. Such mental pictures, of course, stem from Hefner’s 
role as founder and publisher of Playboy magazine. Over the last fifty 
years, Playboy’s monthly array of hedonistic messages, which Hefner 
has supported with a publicity-drenched lifestyle, has made him an 
impresario of sex and leisure in the United States and has brought 
him dazzling fame. Like Walt Disney in the movies, Muhammad 
Ali in sports, or Elvis Presley in popular music, Hefner has come to 
signify a personal style, a fantasy. Like these other larger-than-life 
figures, he has become an icon of modern American life who has 
made a significant impact on our culture. 

But the climb to the pinnacle of acclaim and influence proved 
to be a long one. In late December 1952, a forlorn twenty-six-year- 
old Hefner stood on a bridge at Michigan Avenue in downtown 
Chicago. Bundled up against the frigid winter weather, he grimly 
stared out over the Chicago Biver. His life seemed at low ebb as he 
strained against the bonds of an unsatisfying marriage, flinched at 


1 



2 


MR. PLAYBOY 


the unsettling prospect of parenthood, and balked at the thought 
of returning to an unfulfilling job with few career prospects. This 
unhappiness had been driven home by an event a few days earlier. 
He had cohosted an alumni show at his old high school where, along 
with his best friend, he had told jokes, performed skits, and sang a 
few numbers while emceeing the festivities. An enthusiastic audience 
had responded with laughter and applause. 

That magical evening left Hefner yearning to recapture the enthusi- 
asm, optimism, and sense of achievement of his high school years when 
he had been a popular and creative leader among students. But now 
those youthful hopes seemed far away. Standing on the bridge, he mut- 
tered, “Is this all there is? Where is my life going?” He silendy vowed to 
do something to escape the ennui that threatened to suffocate him. 1 

While not quite on par with Edward Gibbon s famous reverie amid 
the ruins of Rome that prompted him to write The History of the 
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — even though critics would 
later accuse Hefner of starting just such a process of degeneration in 
the United States — this episode marked a turning point in the young 
man’s life. A few weeks later, he started his own magazine. The results 
would be stunning. 

Within fifteen years, Hefner and Playboy had taken the country 
by storm. From its modest beginnings in Chicago, the magazine grew 
spectacularly into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with a circulation 
of some five million readers by the late 1960s and seven million by 
the early 1970s. The Playboy empire expanded to include clubs, 
resorts, music, films, television shows, and a wide array of merchan- 
dise. Even more, like Coca-Cola or Mickey Mouse, the magazines 
ubiquitous bunny logo became an international symbol of American 
life. During the Vietnam War in 1969, for instance, American soldiers 
were amused to find a dog-eared copy of Playboy in a captured North 
Vietnamese bunker. Hefners vision of the good life, it seemed, had 
even piqued the imagination (or at least the libidos) of hardened 
communist revolutionaries. 

Hefner himself became a media darling. By the mid-1960s, he had 
graced the cover of Time magazine and been featured prominently in 
other publications such as Life , Look, and the Saturday Evening Post. 
He appeared as a frequent guest on popular television programs such 
as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Dick Cavett Show, 
and Rowan and Martins Laugh-In. Dozens of newspaper articles and 



THE BOY NEXT DOOR 


3 


interviews explored his social views and supplied salacious details 
of his outlandish love life, including the shifting bevy of girlfriends, 
the revolving round bed where he worked and cavorted, and the 
glass-walled, bathing-suits-optional swimming pool with a bar built 
alongside. 

More significantly, however, Hefner also emerged as a serious 
shaper of, and commentator on, modem American values. In 1967, 
for instance, he appeared on an NBC prime-time special exploring 
America’s burgeoning culture of leisure and affluence. Sitting in the 
library of the Playboy Mansion alongside the noted Harvard theolo- 
gian Harvey Cox and William F. Buckley, the prominent conserva- 
tive editor of the National Review, he discussed Americans’ growing 
interest in what the show called “the pursuit of pleasure.” Puffing 
on his trademark pipe and speaking with smooth self-assurance, he 
argued that an older, religious basis for morality had faded and values 
needed to be reformulated on a more rational basis to promote the 
happiness of individuals. The genuine enjoyment of life in modem 
America, he insisted, demanded liberated sexuality and enthusiastic, 
sophisticated consumption. Holding his own with these intellectual 
heavyweights, Hefner came across, in the words of the moderator, 
as “the Chairman Mao of the sexual revolution, issuing maxims for 
moral guerrilla warfare.” 2 

In other words, within a few years of starting Playboy on a shoe- 
string after begging and borrowing a few thousand dollars, Hefner 
became a serious, influential figure in modern culture. Yet the ques- 
tion of how and why the publisher of a risque men’s magazine was 
able to gamer such influence, and even prestige, has perplexed many 
observers. Understanding comes with the realization that over the 
last half century Hefner has played a key role in changing American 
values, ideas, and attitudes. From the beginning, his enterprise was 
about more than dirty pictures, more than a girlie magazine hastily 
slipped under an overcoat by a guilty purchaser. It was a historical 
force of significant proportions. 

Most obviously, Hefner and Playboy served as a barometer gaug- 
ing the pressures of historical changes in America over a half century. 
In the 1950s, the magazine reflected hip, urban dissatisfaction with 
the stodgy conformism of the Eisenhower era as it critiqued middle- 
class suburbanism, the Beat Generation, and the Cold War cmsade 
against communism. In the 1960s, Hefner helped fan the flames of 



4 


MR. PLAYBOY 


the civil rights movement, the antiwar crusade, the countercultural 
revolt, and the emerging feminist struggle. In the 1970s, Playboy 
personified both the “Me Generation” and the economic contractions 
of the era, while the 1980s saw it become a foil for, and target of, the 
Reagan Revolution. Throughout, the editor-in-chief and his popular 
publication formed a kind of tablet upon which were inscribed the 
events shaping modern America. 

Rut Hefner and his magazine also played a crucial part in shaping, 
not just reflecting, American values in the decades after World War II. 
Articulating some of the deepest social and emotional longings of 
modern Americans, this controversial publisher stood at the forefront 
of four upheavals that fundamentally reconfigured the United States 
in the last half of the twentieth century. First, he helped trigger, and 
then personified, a transformation in sexual values and conduct that 
emerged in the 1950s and swept through American society in subse- 
quent years. Playboy, with its “Playmate of the Month,” sexual advice 
columns, and array of erotic pictorials, cartoons, and jokes, moved 
sex out of the privacy of the marital bed and away from the responsi- 
bilities of procreation, and made it a matter of public discussion and 
personal pleasure. The magazines open attitude not only loosened 
old-fashioned moral strictures on one of the most powerful of human 
urges but also promoted its commercialization. Hefner clearly stood as 
the most recognizable product of, and catalyst for, the modern sexual 
revolution. 

He also served as one of the most persuasive advocates for 
Americas postwar consumer efflorescence. As the national economy 
increasingly turned from production of basic goods and services to 
the creation of consumer products, Hefners magazine inundated 
readers with symbols of material abundance. It became both a catalog 
for sophisticated purchasing and a guidebook for negotiating a daunt- 
ing new landscape of material plenty. The pages of Playboy, along 
with Hefner s numerous public statements, articulated a credo urging 
unabashed enjoyment of the material goods that were flooding out to 
a middle- and working-class market. Addressing a simmering male 
identity crisis in modern society in which growing numbers of men 
no longer functioned as producers, the pages of Playboy offered the 
reassuring model of stylish consumer. Linking material plenty to an 
audacious leisure culture, Hefner helped make consumer abundance 
an emblem of America throughout the world. 



THE BOY NEXT DOOR 


5 


Moreover, Hefner stood at the center of a popular culture invasion 
of the United States that swept all before it in the postwar decades. 
This sea change saw glossy magazines, television, movies, records, and 
entertainment of all kinds become a dominant force in most people s 
lives in all regions of the country. This process replaced local institu- 
tions such as churches, lyceums, reading societies, and town newspa- 
pers with large-scale, corporate media organizations that dispensed 
homogenized information, products, and images nationally. With his 
popular magazine, syndicated television shows, franchised nightclubs, 
and movie and musical projects synergistically broadcasting the same 
array of messages, the Chicago publisher personified the mass-culture 
overhaul of modem society in the last half of the twentieth century. 
Even Hefner s passionately pursued personal hobbies — swing danc- 
ing and Hollywood movies — reflected this revolutionary trend in 
American life. As he often observed, he was a child of popular culture 
who, in turn, became one of its biggest champions. 

Finally, Hefner stood implicated, usually as a whipping boy, in 
the womens movement that swept through America beginning 
in the 1960s. Playboy’s erotic images of nude young women made it 
an object of scorn among many emerging feminists, who complained 
that it depicted females as mere sexual objects. The magazine, in their 
view, represented the worst sort of male domination and female deg- 
radation. A distraught Hefner — he saw himself as a progressive who 
was unfairly indicted as a reactionary — contended that he promoted 
sexual freedom for women as well as men. Few women’s liberation- 
ists bought the argument. As the debate ratcheted upward with bitter 
accusations of misogyny and betrayal, these two factions turned upon 
one another with ferocious animosity. As a major combatant in this 
battle over sexual politics and acceptable roles for women, Playboy 
illuminated one of the most profound trends in modern American 
social life. 

While Hefner has stood at the cutting edge of these transforma- 
tive trends, his influence has worked in complex ways. It often flowed 
through indirect channels, for instance, since what was said about 
him often proved as illuminating as what he said. Whether it was 
Harvey Cox discussing the theological implications of the “Playboy 
Philosophy,” Tom Wolfe describing Hefners role in the cultural fer- 
ment of the 1960s, Norman Mailer detailing the sybaritic pleasures of 
the Playboy Mansion, Gloria Steinem excoriating Hefners oppression 



6 


MR. PLAYBOY 


of women, Attorney General Edwin Meese denouncing Playboy as 
pornography, or Justice William O. Douglas defending Hefners First 
Amendment rights, commentators have used him as a lens through 
which to examine a changing social landscape. 

Bitter disputation has clouded the atmosphere and made it difficult 
to grasp Hefners significance. Few Americans have aroused greater 
controversy in ascending to fame and fortune. Beginning in the 1950s, 
a wide variety of people — journalists, ministers, politicians, moralists, 
and ordinary folks writing to newspapers and magazines — disagreed 
violently about the merits of Playboy and its publisher. On one side 
stood Hefner denouncers who, scandalized by the magazine s pic- 
tures of nude women and its mockery of such institutions as marriage, 
religion, and family, condemned Hefner s appeal to degraded desires 
and animal instincts. Seeing themselves as defenders of respectable 
society, they viewed him as a dark prophet of American debauchery 
and decline. 

Hefner disciples, inspired by Playboy’s attacks on sexual repres- 
sion and advocacy of material enjoyment, defended him with equal 
fervor. They acclaimed the publisher as a liberator leading the 
way to physical and emotional freedom from the gray-flannel fog 
of a repressed, conformist society still chained to the anachronistic 
morality of an earlier age. The magazine, in other words, became a 
kind of cultural litmus test for judging the positive or negative direc- 
tion of modem American culture. Emotionally charged disagreement 
has persisted in one form or another for the last fifty years as defend- 
ers and foes of Playboy’s values eagerly strapped on the gloves for 
ideological fisticuffs. 

Hefners personal life only encouraged the disputation. This fas- 
cinating story of romance, ambition, and sex revealed a young man 
emerging from a midwestern Methodist background who parlayed 
the initial shock created by Playboy into a powerful position as a 
cultural trendsetter. Constantly surrounded by a crowd of beauti- 
ful young women, he made pleasure-seeking into an art form as the 
Playboy Mansion became a highly publicized playground for promi- 
nent figures in the world of politics, sports, music, and movies. The 
private man, however, nurtured a more complicated, even mysterious 
personality. A set of internal contradictions — a powerful sensuality 
and a compulsive work ethic, a hedonistic streak and an impulse to 
rigidly control every aspect of his life, a compulsive desire for celebrity 



THE BOY NEXT DOOR 


7 


status and a Gatsby-like instinct for observing the merrymaking at a 
distance — made for a curiously driven yet detached sybarite. So, too, 
did his combination of restless intelligence, extreme sentimentality, 
and obsession with the romantic artifacts of popular culture. Hefner s 
personal complexities mattered little, however, to those eager to 
either condemn or canonize. 

Ultimately, however, if understanding is to trump titillation and 
fervor, the controversial publisher must be approached from a differ- 
ent angle. While both disciples and demonizers of Hefner are likely 
to be disappointed by this perspective, Hefner must be analyzed as 
a historical figure, not merely a controversial celebrity. Viewed in 
this rightful context, at first glance, he appears as a rebel. Wave after 
wave of attacks throughout his career — from anti-obscenity zealots, 
defenders of decency, religious moralists, conservative politicians, 
feminist activists — have positioned him as a dissenter in modern 
America. Indeed, Hefner himself has embraced the role of heroic 
insurrectionist seeking to overturn outdated, stultifying, Puritan tra- 
ditions in American culture. In fact, this scenario contains a kernel of 
truth. As a crusading reformer, he has done much, in the face of often 
virulent opposition, to loosen restrictions on sexual expression. 

But the image of Hefner as rebel also misleads. In more profound 
ways, he has expressed many of the deepest impulses of mainstream 
American culture. For example, he appeared on the cultural skyline 
as champion of a venerable tradition in American life, the self-made 
man. Rising to great heights from modest circumstances by dint 
of hard work and a new idea, he romped up the path to success as 
Benjamin Franklin in bunny ears. 

More importantly, Hefner has presented a compelling vision of 
the good life in modern America. In so doing, he occupies a cru- 
cial position in a longer historical trajectory. In the early 1900s, 
as historians have emphasized in recent decades, the Victorian 
restraints of the nineteenth century steadily eroded as the mass of 
Americans gradually replaced a traditional code of self-control with 
a new creed emphasizing emotional, physical, and material gratifica- 
tion. Then the privations of the Great Depression and World War II 
stunted the process, creating a great cultural reservoir of pent-up 
material and emotional desires. In the postwar era it shot forward 
once again, and Hefner emerged as perhaps the leading popular 
philosopher of a revived, intensified culture of self-fulfillment for 



MR. PLAYBOY 


an audience yearning for gratification. He seductively portrayed the 
pursuit of happiness as a combination of physical pleasure, leisure 
entertainment, and consumer enjoyment. Brilliantly commingling 
sexual liberation and material abundance, Playboy captured the 
essence of modern American desire. 

In this sense, Hefners historical influence has been, quite literally, 
fantastic. The Playboy dream is the stuff of fantasy, conjured from the 
realm of desire by a kind of cultural alchemy. While often flowing 
from Hefners personal experiences — “My life has been the fulfill- 
ment of a fantasy,” he likes to say — his vision of happiness also reso- 
nates powerfully in the broader culture. The notion of having few 
limits on personal pleasure is the modern American dream as well as 
Hefners. As the historian Daniel Boorstin observed, the enormous 
abundance of modern America has created “a world where fantasy 
is more real than reality. . . . We risk being the first people in history 
to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 
‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” 3 

Whether we like it or not, Hefner s vision of America as the land of 
self-fulfillment has been realized in many ways. His notions of sexual 
happiness and material comfort, pleasure and leisure, maleness and 
femaleness, of individuals freed from many of the restraints of fam- 
ily and religion have become commonplace, though often in diluted 
form. We see in Hefner and Playboy many of our own perceptions 
of modern life. We see reflections of what we have become, both 
personally and collectively, glimpses of where we might be going, for 
good or ill. We see many of our hopes and fears about our culture, 
often hopelessly mingled together. 

But the process of analyzing the impact of Hefner and Playboy on 
American life must begin by returning to the past. There, in the hal- 
cyon days of the late 1920s before the trauma of the Great Depression, 
a middle-class couple only recently removed from the rural hinter- 
land faced the future in a dynamic midwestern city. Their oldest son, 
the typical boy next door, would find opportunities and restrictions in 
equal portion, and each would provide its own enticements. 



PART I 


BEGINNINGS 




1 


A Boy at Play 


H ugh Hefner grew up in a repressive, “Puritan” atmosphere in 
which his family discouraged shows of affection. The strict reli- 
gious code of his parents forbade emotional displays, drinking, 
swearing, or sexual candor, and he yearned to break free and find 
love, romance, and emotional connection. This desire finally drove 
him to outright dissent in young adulthood and he founded Playboy 
as a proclamation of freedom and sexual liberation. In Hefner s words, 
“In many ways it was my parents who, unintentionally, developed the 
iconoclastic rebellion in me.” This personal struggle not only pro- 
vided the seedbed for his later career, Hefner argues, but framed 
larger issues in modern America that explained the enormous appeal 
of Playboy. “Puritan repression is really the key that unlocks the mys- 
tery of my life,” he wrote. “It is the ‘Rosebud’ that explains what my 
life is really all about .” 1 

Such is the story that Hefner has told interviewers countless times 
over the last forty years, and it provides an unshakable foundation for 
his own understanding of his life. He has constructed a kind of per- 
sonal mythology. Like all of us, only more self-consciously and pub- 
licly, he has constructed a view of his past that explains and justifies 


11 



12 


MR. PLAYBOY 


his present. But Hefners rendering of his youth simplifies a complex 
situation. Like all myths, it strikes a chord with its dramatic narra- 
tive of a young hero overcoming obstacles and triumphing. Also like 
all myths, it is only partially true. As D. H. Lawrence once warned, 
“Don’t trust the teller. Trust the tale.” And the real tale of Hefners 
youth suggests a somewhat different story that is compelling in its 
own way. 

In fact, Hefner was the product of a moderately progressive family 
where traditional, Victorian reticence about emotional display and 
sexuality, while certainly present, was rapidly giving way to a more 
modern notion of juvenile self-fulfillment. Only recently removed 
from the rural culture of the Great Plains, his college-educated par- 
ents had adapted themselves to the bustling urban life of Chicago. 
Growing up in the 1930s, Hefner was doted on by his mother while an 
emotionally absent father deprived the boy of a male authority figure. 
Left to his own devices, the imaginative child immersed himself in the 
popular culture of the era — movies, music, radio, and cartoons — and 
created a rich fantasy life that gradually took on a reality more vibrant 
than his actual, lived experiences. The product of indulgence as much 
as restraint, the boy’s fantasies mirrored larger patterns in America’s 
emerging culture of self-fulfillment and its desire for leisure, enter- 
tainment, and emotional satisfaction. They made him a creature of 
modern values in ways that he never fully appreciated. 

But the origins of Hefner’s early life were found far from the city 
lights and urban crowds of Chicago and Los Angeles where he would 
spend most of his days. The family into which he was born, and the 
values that he found so stifling, were shaped on the distant, wind- 
swept prairies of turn-of-the-century Nebraska. 


At the conclusion of a young people’s party at the Methodist church 
in Holdrege, Nebraska, in 1911, Glenn Hefner asked Grace Swanson 
if he could walk home with her. She agreed, and thus began a long 
courtship between the two rural teenagers. This small town of some 
thirty-five hundred people sat in the south-central part of the state, 
about 120 miles from Omaha. Bom in a sod house, Glenn had been 
shaped by a father who flitted from job to job — barber, insurance 



A BOY AT PLAY 


13 


agent, real estate salesman — in a vain attempt to keep his family out 
of poverty. Grace enjoyed more prosperous circumstances. She had 
been bom in 1895 to a farm family and experienced a typical rural 
childhood punctuated by chores, animals, and domestic dramas. Her 
mother was a religious woman, while her father, although a good pro- 
vider, was a man of harsh temperament and an authoritarian bent. 
This stem disciplinarian rarely concerned himself with the progress 
or well-being of his children. Once as she came home from grade 
school, Grace recalled, “he passed me in the yard and hit me with a 
black snake whip . . . because he thought I hadn’t come right home 
from school.” She confessed, “I did not think I loved my father, just 
feared him.” Moreover, he refused to attend church like his pious 
wife, drank at local taverns, and swore vigorously. 2 

Grace, who would be an important influence on her eldest son 
in subsequent years, imbibed the religious values of her mother. 
When an older brother tormented her, she would shout, “Sinner, 
you are a sinner,” which was the worst epithet she knew. She sang 
in the church choir, won a public speaking contest sponsored by the 
anti-liquor Womens Christian Temperance Union, and socialized 
with other young people at the local church. Glenn displayed a som- 
ber temperament as a young man — “Life was a serious business for 
him,” Grace explained — but moderated it with a tonic of jovial good 
humor. His parents were respectable churchgoers, and he followed 
their example. 3 

Glenn and Grace first became acquainted through basketball in 
high school. They both played avidly, and one day the school princi- 
pal, as he observed the boys’ and girls’ teams practicing, remarked, 
“I think Glenn Hefner and Grace would make a good couple. They 
ought to get together.” And indeed, after their encounter at the 
church party, the two young people dated steadily throughout high 
school. They were serious students who appeared comfortable in each 
other’s company. Grace was particularly scholarly, serving as editor of 
the school yearbook and becoming class valedictorian. After gradu- 
ation, Glenn went on to Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, 
while Grace taught at a country school for two years before joining 
him there. She studied chemistry and math at Wesleyan while Glenn 
took business and accounting courses. The young couple socialized 
by going to movies, fraternity parties, and football games. Upon grad- 
uating from college in 1918, Glenn joined the navy to serve in World 



14 


MR. PLAYBOY 


War I while Grace remained to finish her degree while working as a 
part-time schoolteacher. He returned to Nebraska after the cessation 
of hostilities and taught in high school and worked at a small-town 
bank before moving to Chicago to join some friends. He found a job 
with a railroad company and then in an accounting office. Grace soon 
joined him and they were married at a Methodist church in 1921. 4 

The newlyweds took up lodgings on the West Side near the Austin 
district, where several friends and relatives already lived. Glenn 
worked as an accountant while Grace took jobs as a telephone opera- 
tor and bookkeeper before joining the World Service Commission 
of the Methodist Church, where she dealt with young people work- 
ing as prospective ministers or in the Home Missionary Society, the 
Womens Home Missionary Society, and the Deaconess Society. In 
the spring of 1926, however, Grace quit her job because she was 
expecting her first child. 5 

Hugh Marston Hefner was bom on April 9, 1926, and enjoyed a 
healthy infancy. His parents socialized with other young couples, play- 
ing pinochle and checkers, sharing potluck suppers, and occasionally 
going to the movies. On rare occasions they would return to Nebraska 
to visit farm relatives. In 1929 a brother, Keith, arrived, and the fol- 
lowing year the family moved to a new house at 1922 North New 
England Avenue in Austin, which would remain the family home for 
many decades. The Hefners soon acquired a new Model A Ford, and 
within a few years Hugh and Keith possessed the accoutrements of a 
typical middle-class childhood — bicycles, a sandbox in the backyard, 
and a dog named Wags. 6 

Hugh’s boyhood unfolded happily. His neighborhood offered 
nearby fields and streams, and the Hefner house became a gather- 
ing place for boys such as Harold and Russell Saewert, Don Harper, 
Jimmy Bachman, Warren Tellefson, and Hugh’s best friend, Jimmy’s 
brother Curtis Bachman. They would play in the backyard, ride their 
bicycles, or roam their rustic surroundings conducting war games 
and encountering snakes, birds, and crawdads. “Mine was the house 
where they came to play, and she made us all welcome,” Hefner 
noted of his mother. In the early 1930s Grace took her sons and 
their pals to see the Field Museum, the Aquarium, and the Chicago 
World’s Fair with its proud slogan, “The Century of Progress.” Hugh 
and Keith had a close boyhood relationship, playing constantly and 
sharing a bedroom. ‘We did everything together as kids. I worshipped 



A BOY AT PLAY 


15 


him,” Keith recalled later. The boys felt quite grown up when given 
their own bedrooms, only to discover that they had been separated 
because their nightly talking and giggling was keeping their parents 
awake . 7 

Hugh developed a special love for animals. “When he was a kid,” 
remembers Keith, “he wanted to be a veterinarian, [it] was the first 
job that he ever thought of, I think.” At age eleven, Hugh received 
a prize from the Illinois Humane Society for his poem “Be Kind to 
Dumb Animals,” which included these stanzas: “To all animals please 
be kind / Then faithfulness you will find / Feed cat and dog when they 
need to be fed / Then them to happiness you have led.” An inter- 
esting animal-related incident occurred around age six. Throughout 
his childhood, Hugh had treasured a special blue-and-white security 
blanket featuring a bunny pattern. When he came down with a mas- 
toid infection, he received a present from his parents to speed his 
recovery — a wire-haired fox terrier that he named Brows. A little 
box was set up in the basement, and the boy donated his “bunny 
blanket” for the dog to sleep on. Unfortunately, Brows died about a 
week later and the blanket had to be burned. Hugh was heartbroken, 
but the imagery seems to have stuck with him at some level. Later he 
would note the “Citizen Kane kind of connection here of the burned 
blanket” as he went on to create the bunny empire . 8 

In physical terms, Hugh developed slowly. While active and bois- 
terous with his friends, he was not athletic and shied away from orga- 
nized sports. He tended to be reserved in formal situations at school 
or home and hated to answer the telephone. A close childhood friend 
recalled an incident from the second grade when the shy boy was 
called upon to read aloud. “He stood up to read and lost his place. 
I can still see him standing there looking confused and embarrassed. 
From then on, all the way through high school, he read line-by-line, 
using his finger .” 9 

Even as a boy, however, Hefner displayed an unusual creativity. 
Fascinated with drawing, he spent countless hours sketching crude 
cartoon strips such as Cranet, an adventurer who flew from Earth to 
Mars; Jigs and Spike, cowboy outlaws; Jim Malt, a youthful detec- 
tive; and adventure characters named “Marvel Man,” “the Mystic,” 
and “Metallic Man.” He wrote fantasy stories such as “The Haunted 
Castle” and “Ratty,” the “story of a big rat who couldn’t be caught 
until nature took a hand,” based on a real rodent who roamed the 



16 


MR. PLAYBOY 


neighborhood. At age nine he published a one-page neighborhood 
newspaper called the Bi-Weekly News, which he sold for a few 
cents to the parents of his pals. In grammar school, he created two 
unofficial class newspapers that sold for a penny each, before mov- 
ing on to create a school-sanctioned newspaper called the Pepper, 
which proudly announced his role as “Editor and Tiper.” Recalled a 
childhood friend, “From the sixth through the eighth grades, I have 
a mind’s eye view of Hef at his desk, dashing off drawings and circu- 
lating them to me and other classmates for our amusement. He was 
always inventing comic strips.” 10 

In fact, throughout grammar school Hefner’s preoccupation with 
drawing and story-writing exasperated his teachers. Absorbed in his 
imagination, he often neglected his studies. “He doesn’t do his arith- 
metic, geography, or spelling unless I stand right at his elbow. He 
constantly draws,” his fourth-grade teacher wrote to Grace Hefner. 
“I’ve about reached the end of my patience with him. . . . Perhaps 
you can help. He will not pass if he doesn’t do his work.” After being 
called to task, the boy tried to buckle down to the academic duties at 
hand and composed two contrite poems, complete with imaginative 
spelling: 

Why I Waist Time 
I think I get to dreaming 
Of something I might do. 

And I forget my studies, 

And what I’m supost to do. 

What I’m Going To Make of Myself Next Semester 
I will not make my teacher mad, 

Because that would make me sad. 

I will not draw at all in school, 

And I won’t brake a single rule. 

But the problem persisted, calling forth yet another signed prom- 
ise the following year: “I will not do the things below. 1. I will not 
talk to my neighbor. 2. I will not play in school. 3. I will not cause my 
teacher any trouble and I will work my very best.” 11 

Young Hefner, however, could not mend his ways. In his early teen- 
age years he continued drawing cartoon strips — eventually they 



A BOY AT PLAY 


17 


would number about seventy different series — and to write and 
illustrate stories. He had begun to read fiction by Edgar Allan Poe 
and H. G. Wells and became a devotee of Sax Rohmers Dr. Fu 
Manchu tales and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. His 
own stories, with titles such as “The End of the World,” “The Lizard 
Men from Under the Earth,” “Dr. Claws Invisible Hound,” “The 
Mansion of Madness,” and “Out of the Fog,” increasingly focused on 
the macabre, the supernatural, horror, and science fiction. In 1940, 
Hefner formed and became president of “The Shudder Club,” which, 
as expressed in his youthful syntax, aimed “to bring together all lov- 
ers of chills and horror and enjoying good mystery together.” Like 
all self-respecting clubs for boys, it offered an official handshake, 
password, membership pin, and special “decoder circle” that per- 
mitted members to untangle secret messages. Hefner, doing all of 
the work, published five issues of Shudder magazine, which offered 
original mystery and horror stories. The boys were delighted when 
Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre replied to their solicita- 
tion and accepted honorary positions in the club. 12 

By 1940, Hefners creations were reflecting the pressure of world 
events. “Photoplays” consisted of photographs of costumed charac- 
ters, shot on the family Kodak, that were captioned to tell a story. 
While two of them were Sherlock Holmes parodies, the other pair 
were stories about World War II titled “Bill Dodgely and Troop 
31” and “The Kids No Coward.” A 1940 comic strip told the story 
of three French brothers escaping from a Nazi prison in occupied 
Europe, while a ten-page tale imagined a German invasion of the 
United States that was heroically rebuffed near Chicago. 13 

Indeed, throughout childhood Hefner created vivid fantasy worlds 
in which he immersed himself, a trait that would prove to be lifelong. 
The boy who wouldn’t answer the telephone or venture alone to the 
dentist’s office a few streets away preferred to inhabit a reality he had 
created and to entice others to join him there. “I was a dreamer and 
people referred to me as a dreamer,” Hefner later admitted of his 
childhood. “I had these flights of fantasy.” 14 

This tendency had appeared in him at a very young age. Along 
with his brother and his pals, he organized a game he called “Clay” 
that they played day after day for years. Using modeling clay on a 
large table, they created dozens of small human figures and elabo- 
rate settings — battlefields, haunted mansions, mysterious ships — that 



18 


MR. PLAYBOY 


were like miniature movie sets. He invented stories the boys would 
bring to life as they would bend and twist the clay figures and speak 
for them. Grace later would recount how her eldest son “liked to 
fantasize and tell stories and play with these clay figures.” 15 

In fact, Grace was repeatedly struck by Hugh’s insular creativity. 
“As a child, he found it very difficult to make new friends. When he 
was in school, he was a dreamer, and sort of lived his own life in his 
own mind,” she observed. “I would ask him who some of his class- 
mates were, and he wouldn’t know the names of very many of them.” 
But he could relate the plots of his stories and comic strips down to 
the tiniest detail. “You couldn’t always tell what was making Hugh 
feel unhappy, because he was very much a loner,” a baffled Grace 
admitted. “He always lived in a fantasy world.” 16 

Keith Hefner observed the same impulse in his older brother. 
Hugh preferred to spend time in his room, writing stories and draw- 
ing cartoons, when he wasn’t playing. Often shy and insecure with 
other people, the boy did not like venturing out. “His fantasy life 
really began with the stories he wrote as a child in grade school and 
the cartoons he drew,” Keith said. “He could really make his life what 
he wanted it to be.” Even as a kid, noted the younger Hefner, Hugh 
wanted “his world to stay exactly as he made it, and doesn’t want to 
go anywhere else where that isn’t the reality.” 17 

Hefner’s fantasies did not appear sui generis, however, but 
were shaped by a cluster of influences. Family dynamics and reli- 
gious instruction played an important role in channeling his cre- 
ative instincts, as did the popular culture milieu of Depression-era 
America. These factors converged to prod his imagination and create 
a yearning that would motivate him throughout his life. 


II 

Like many middle-class children in the 1930s, Hugh Hefner was 
molded by traditional forces of family and religion. Since the early 
nineteenth century, respectable American families had drawn upon 
evangelical Protestantism and Victorian ideology to sustain them in 
a fluid, dynamic society of opportunity. The revivals of the Second 
Great Awakening had swept through the United States in the early 
1800s, creating a Protestant tradition of “moral free agency” that made 



A BOY AT PLAY 


19 


the individual the arbiter of his own salvation. The crystallization of 
Victorian culture around the same time had enshrined a set of moral 
principles devoted to individual self-control. As late as the Great 
Depression, these traditions informed the way middle-class parents 
raised their children. 18 

This mind-set was changing dramatically, however, both in the 
larger culture and in the Hefner household. New leisure activities such 
as amusement parks and the movies had helped break down Victorian 
self-control in the early 1900s, while the explosive growth of a con- 
sumer economy gave rise to an ethos of material and emotional self- 
fulfillment. The Hefner family proved susceptible to such modernizing 
influences. To a marked degree, and contrary to Hugh s memories later 
in life, not just “Puritanism” but progressive notions of morality and 
childrearing influenced the proceedings at New England Avenue. So 
too did American popular culture, every variety of which colored the 
outlook of the eldest Hefner son. Glimpses of the man who founded 
Playboy could be seen in a youngster frustrated by the reticence and 
nose-to-the-grindstone ethic of his parents. They also manifested in 
a boy who was never disciplined without explanation, who chafed at 
even the mild restraints put in place by his parents, who argued with 
Sunday school teachers, and who whiled away countless hours in the 
company of cartoonists, mystery writers, and movie directors. 19 

As Hefner would recall throughout his life, restraint and repression 
colored the atmosphere of his family as he came of age. Orderly rules 
and sobriety muffled expressions of emotion. Hugh and Keith had to 
be at home and in bed earlier than their playmates, and they were 
not allowed to play with friends on Sunday, which was set aside for 
church and family activities. Grace and Glenn also shied away from 
displays of affection to each other and to their children. Little kissing 
and hugging occurred in this emotional climate of cool reserve. Keith 
remembered, “There was a period that lasted about two weeks when 
I was quite young, when I thought it would be nice to kiss my father 
on the cheek good night and that lasted about a week. I could tell how 
embarrassed he was by it.” In fact, Grace and Glenn buried emotions 
so deep that feelings of any kind — anger, affection, disputes — seldom 
came to the surface. There was much calmness and kindness among 
the Hefners, but little passion. “His parents are very controlled peo- 
ple,” Hefners first wife reported. “In the three years we lived there, 
I never heard them raise their voice. Never.” 20 



20 


MR. PLAYBOY 


This atmosphere was reinforced by the temperaments of the 
boys’ parents. Glenn, a straitlaced, hardworking CPA, had carved 
out a career at the Advanced Aluminum Company and also kept 
the books for the Austin Methodist Church, where the Hefners 
attended. About five foot eight with broad shoulders and a trim 
waist, the former basketball player had kept himself in good shape 
into middle age. Although taciturn, he had more of a sense of humor 
than Grace and was known to joke on occasion. He found it hard to 
talk to his sons, but occasionally joined them in pitching horseshoes 
or playing ball . 21 

But Hugh and Keith seldom saw their father because he was 
addicted to his work. Glenn left in the morning before his sons arose 
and returned near midnight after they were in bed. This grinding 
schedule resulted partly from his fascination with bookkeeping and 
partly from the Depression, when working extra hours could mean 
the difference between keeping a job and unemployment. He left the 
raising of his children to his wife, which pleased none of them. The 
boys sensed a vacuum in their lives because their father was seldom 
around for bonding experiences. When Keith told his dad how much 
he had missed his presence in boyhood, Glenn responded, “I didn’t 
think I had to [be present]. My father never did anything with me.” 
Grace also felt pangs of loneliness and worry, often walking around 
the block near midnight when he still had not appeared at home. An 
industrious, remote figure who was respected, even admired, in the 
Hefner family, Glenn was negligible in his personal impact. He was 
“a very nice husband” and a hard worker, said Grace, but as a father 
“he wasn’t there.” 22 

Glenn’s reserve influenced his attitudes toward physical issues and 
sexuality. When the family went to a local swimming pool, he care- 
fully hid his body from his sons as he stood behind a locker door and 
changed into his swimming trunks. He never discussed sex in any 
fashion with his sons. Decades later, Keith was stunned when his 
father asserted that he had never masturbated in his entire life, even 
as a teenager. Grace shared this Victorian aversion to sexuality. Later 
in life she confessed that she never had much use for sex. Glenn was 
very shy, but “he always liked it more than I did .” 23 

Grace shared her husband’s religiosity, kindliness, lack of preten- 
sion, and undemonstrative nature. Of medium height and sharp- 
featured, with wire-rimmed glasses and a habitually serious expression, 



A BOY AT PLAY 


21 


this soft-spoken woman wore no makeup, dressed simply, and kept 
her long hair carefully twirled up in a bun. As a young woman she 
had decided that if Glenn did not come back from World War I, 
she was going to become a missionary or a teacher in a mission school. 
A deeply felt code of Protestant values caused her to endorse virtu- 
ous, plain living, to view wealth with suspicion, and to see displays of 
emotion as unseemly . 24 

As a mother, Grace followed the same path trod by religious 
middle-class women for decades. Although college-educated, she 
stayed at home and devoted herself to the upbringing of the chil- 
dren. She handled all domestic matters, kept a house that was tidy 
if somewhat stark, and prepared meals of common midwestern fare: 
fried chicken, pot roast, pork chops, and fried fish. She enforced rules 
of behavior, counseled restraint, and set a tone of moral uplift in her 
household. She tried to raise children who were, in her own words, 
“very moral, kind, giving, social beings, treating other folks the way 
they want to be treated.” Religious instruction played a significant 
role in her childrearing efforts. As Hugh noted throughout his adult 
life, this “repressed Midwestern Methodist home” overseen by his 
mother produced a “Puritanical upbringing .” 25 

Yet Grace and Glenn Hefner were not simply hidebound tradi- 
tionalists. Vestiges of old-fashioned principles certainly remained, but 
they had drifted far away from the values of provincial Nebraska. 
In certain ways they had embraced modernity. Not content to be a 
farmer or village storekeeper, Glenn had attended college and created 
a career in the corporate world of Chicago. Uprooted from the coun- 
tryside, the Hefners had abandoned the extended family network that 
supported a traditional worldview. There was little contact with family 
as the Hefner boys were growing up. “I always felt as if the family on 
both sides, there was a remoteness,” Hugh recollected. “We were not 
close to our relatives at all.” Moreover, the Hefners had surmounted 
their modest economic origins, remaining relatively prosperous even 
during the dark years of the Depression. In fact, on occasion, Grace 
and Glenn sent money to help relatives back in Nebraska. “I was 
only vaguely aware of it. I never felt in danger in terms of anything 
economic,” Hugh recalled of the Depression . 26 

In addition, Grace displayed a modern side that was never appre- 
ciated fully by her eldest son. Although a moralist, she was a progres- 
sive, educated woman who nurtured a liberal social vision and a view 



22 


MR. PLAYBOY 


of childrearing attuned not only to religion but to the latest theories 
put forward by psychology. These impulses would shape young 
Hughs character quite as much as, and perhaps more than, the 
residue of “Puritan repression.” 

Grace had a remarkably liberal worldview in many ways. She was 
a pacifist who “didn’t think there should be any war, and didn’t think 
there should be any implements of war,” according to Keith. Far in 
advance of her time, she denounced racial prejudice and taught her 
sons tolerance. Once, when they were at the train station, another 
passenger warned them to avoid an orange juice stand because 
a black person was squeezing the oranges. “Some people think that 
black people are different from us and aren’t as clean as us and so 
forth, and that isn’t right,” Grace immediately told the boys. “Don’t 
pay any attention to that.” 27 

Grace’s progressive views also surfaced in her opinions on childrear- 
ing. As a young mother, she fell under the sway of Parents magazine. 
She subscribed to this journal and relied upon its expert advice on 
everything from what movies were acceptable for children, to sex 
education, emotional training, and hygiene habits. What Hugh later 
interpreted as the fruits of a stern, cold “Puritan” ideology — not 
kissing on the mouth, skimpy displays of affection, strict rules about 
bedtime — came, in fact, from the pages of Parents. There mothers 
were told that kissing on the lips spread germs, that sentimentalizing 
children undermined scientific training, and that children did most 
of their growing during the sleep hours. As she explained, “I was 
very sure that what was recommended by Parents magazine should 
be done.” 28 

Grace’s reliance on this publication reveals much. Parents had been 
founded in 1926, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, to 
promote the most recent scientific findings in the new field of child 
development. Within a few years it became the largest-selling edu- 
cational magazine in the world. This publishing venture was part of 
a larger Progressive crusade in the early twentieth century to utilize 
modem social science in many areas of education — in schools, among 
parents, in social work — to create a rational, efficient social order. As 
the historian Ann Hulbert has written, “A contingent of professional 
men and progressive-minded women led the way in spreading a new 
gospel that the child’s fate would no longer be entrusted to God or mere 
custom.” They joined in “calling on science to come to the rescue.” 29 



A BOY AT PLAY 


23 


Psychology, particularly behaviorism, dominated research in child 
development in the 1920s, and its strictures filled the pages of 
Parents magazine: enhance your child’s development by molding 
behavior at a young age, pursue strict habit formation, rely on sci- 
ence rather than sentiment. The crack-up of the traditional Victorian 
family in the decades around the turn of the century had created 
great emotional and social strains in the American family. Now, 
with its impressive battery of social science experts, this publication 
promised to help young, isolated mothers like Grace Hefner shape 
a new generation of well-adjusted, confident citizens for an efficient 
modern society. 30 

Thus Grace’s parenting, while influenced by her own Victorian 
upbringing, had a strong progressive element. Her letters to Hugh’s 
teachers adopted psychological language in addressing his difficulties 
with concentrating on academic subjects. A mastoid infection around 
age six, she explained to an instructor, had created problems with 
his hearing and sight but she did not discuss this “handicap” around 
him for fear that he would “feel inferior.” “He is unusually sensitive 
and whether he has been ridiculed in front of other children and is 
fearful of its being repeated, or what, I do not know,” she wrote to 
another teacher. “I have been greatly troubled by his lack of adjust- 
ment.” When Hugh’s academic problems persisted and he remained 
reluctant to answer the telephone or travel to the dentist, she did not 
react like a good Victorian mother with punishment or admonitions. 
Instead, Grace concluded that this behavior “was not normal” and 
took him to an expert for testing. The doctor decided that, again in 
the language of the new behavioral sciences, his IQ was quite high 
and “his mind was ahead of his social development.” 31 

In fact, Grace’s psychology-tinged approach created an atmo- 
sphere of indulgence and rationality regarding her children. They 
“should have their own likes and dislikes, follow their own wants, 
their own inclinations,” she maintained. She listened carefully to 
Hugh and Keith and tried to discuss issues in a nonthreatening way. 
While stressing the need for rules, she avoided punishing her chil- 
dren (especially corporal punishment) and offered explanations for 
parental decisions rather than just imposing her authority. In Grace’s 
words, “I always had a strong sense of duty — you know, this should 
be done because it was the right thing to do. But I at least tried to 
explain why ,” 32 



24 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hugh was Grace’s favorite — “If we were both drowning, there was 
never a question in my mind who she would save, if she could only 
save one,” Keith once said — and her indulgence shaped his character. 
She listened carefully to his ideas, took him seriously, and nurtured 
a special bond of communication between them. “I was a kid who, 
from very early on, was always asking ‘why,’ and she encouraged that,” 
Hugh would say later. This penchant for independent thinking pro- 
duced a kind of self-regard that was striking even in his childhood. 
From a young age, he resented doing anything that he saw as an 
“obligation,” such as going to the neighbors for a social visit or joining 
parents and brother for a ride in the car. He resisted such things if he 
saw no purpose in them. 33 

A striking example of Grace’s modern childrearing methods 
involved sexual education. It illustrated how her progressive attach- 
ment to psychology was undermining her old-fashioned moralism. 
In the best Victorian tradition, she found the topic of sexuality to 
be acutely embarrassing. Her parents had never discussed sex and 
reproduction with her, she viewed sex outside of marriage as unthink- 
able, and she found sensuous figures such as Mae West to be offen- 
sive. Nonetheless, her modern instincts dictated a scientific approach 
to the issue. So after consulting Parents magazine and a friend trained 
in child development, she steeled herself, procured an illustrated 
book, and explained the facts of reproduction to Hugh and Keith. She 
even answered a couple of questions from one of the boys’ playmates, 
whose outraged mother subsequently telephoned and asked Grace 
to avoid the topic with her son. Hugh would complain later that all 
he learned about was the biology of reproduction, and not physical 
and emotional aspects of sexual intercourse, but Grace believed that 
she was proceeding according to the latest expert advice: “I thought 
I was progressive.” 34 

Hugh’s education in sexual matters received a jolt, however, 
from a family scandal that even his mother’s progressive approach 
couldn’t explain. In 1931, Glenn’s father, James Hefner, was arrested 
in Burlington, Colorado, and tried on four counts of taking “indecent 
liberties” with three girls aged ten and eleven. The charges accused 
the sixty-one-year-old man of “willfully and feloniously placing his 
hands under the clothes of . . . and upon the private parts of” the girls. 
He was convicted and spent over a year in jail, while his wife rented 
a room nearby so she could visit him. Grace was so horrified by this 



A BOY AT PLAY 


25 


crime and fearful of having married into a bad family that she briefly 
considered taking the two boys and leaving. But Glenn, after visiting 
his family, came home so completely mortified by the incident that 
she immediately abandoned such thoughts. Hughs reaction to this 
incident was tangled when he learned of it a few years later. He felt 
disgust at the crime and intense sympathy for his father. Yet he won- 
dered what had caused such aberrant behavior. Somehow, emotional 
and sexual repression seemed to be at fault. He blamed those who 
“were trying to control our lives in terms of sexuality,” concluding 
that “the real sinners were people who were trying to make the rules. 
They were the Puritans .” 35 

Thus the family dynamic in the Hefner household — its juxtaposi- 
tion of Victorian restraint and modem science, moral principles and 
psychological techniques — had a complex impact on Hugh during 
his boyhood. Naturally sweet-natured, he loved his parents. While in 
college, for instance, he wrote Grace and Glenn, “Had I the ability to 
choose two perfect people for my parents, I don’t think I could have 
found a pair better for me than God did. I shall always love you, and 
more than that, respect you, for what you are and have been.” But as 
a boy he yearned for greater displays of parental affection. Unaware 
of Parents magazine and its psychological directives, he blamed the 
repression of a Protestant culture. He also grew sensitive to the pain 
caused by his parents’ emotional reticence. He listened sympatheti- 
cally when his mother, complaining about Glenn’s absences, said 
“she was very much alone, and couldn’t understand why he would 
have to work such long hours.” But he also sympathized with his 
father’s attempts to insulate himself from an impassive wife. “Her 
children were her life, as in many homes,” Hugh explained. “What 
was there for the father? What was there for the husband?” This 
convergence of emotional yearnings, both his own and his parents’, 
sent the sensitive boy in search of ways to fill the void . 36 

The Hefner family dynamic, however, also created a child who 
was extraordinarily self-absorbed. Doted on by his mother and lack- 
ing a firm male authority figure, he pursued his own interests with 
a passionate determination. “Even when Hugh was growing up, he 
was always so intense [and] he’d be miserable if he couldn’t do the 
thing he wanted,” Grace once noted. His parents allowed the boy to 
have his way with most things and seldom punished him. The only 
time he was ever spanked was when he once refused to leave his room 



26 


MR. PLAYBOY 


and join the family to go swimming. Because it occurred so seldom, 
Hugh felt even more keenly the weight of punishment or restraint 
when it did occur. 37 

Religion also played a crucial role in shaping the sensibility of the 
eldest Hefner boy. The family was steeped in traditional Protestantism, 
regularly attending the Austin Methodist Church while Grace rein- 
forced its messages at home. “We didn’t have family prayers, formal 
devotions, and all that, but ... we judged our actions by what we 
thought we should do according to our religious upbringing,” she 
explained. Hugh was a pious child, although subject to the usual juve- 
nile confusions. At age three, he asked his mother, “What is God?” 
Grace explained that God was a loving father over all of us, so when 
Glenn came home that evening, the boy said, “Hello, God!” Once, 
in a moment of tension, Grace overheard Hugh reassure Keith that 
God would take care of them. “I was pleased to hear of his faith,” 
she reported. Hugh occasionally composed religious poems, such as 
a 1937 effort titled “Easter” that described Christs ascension to 
Heaven. 38 

But boyhood piety gave way to adolescent skepticism. Grace and 
Glenn insisted that the boys attend Sunday school, but a teenage 
Hugh resisted after arguing with his teacher about stories or doc- 
trines he found to be nonsensical. He asked, for instance, where the 
other people came from in the Bible when it explained only Adam 
and Eve, Cain and Abel. Once again, Grace’s modernity triumphed 
over her traditional Protestant loyalties. She tolerated Hugh’s dis- 
sent and encouraged him to think for himself. She even allowed the 
boys to decide whether they would be baptized when they became 
teenagers. Keith decided to do it, but his older brother did not. And 
when Hugh refused to attend church a short time later, his mother 
agreed, provided that he attend the Church League for teenagers 
on Sunday evening. Hugh admitted that “even though my parents 
were very religious, it wasn’t dogmatic religion.” Nonetheless, young 
Hefner was growing uncomfortable with the moral universe of the 
Methodist Church. 39 

As much as family and religion, American popular culture molded 
Hugh Hefner’s boyhood character. “Pop culture was my other parent,” 
he described later. “The movies and the music, particularly, were 
the alternative where I escaped into other dreams and fantasies.” 
He went to movies as early as age five and recalled seeing in the 



A BOY AT PLAY 


27 


early 1930s Smoky, the story of a horse, the Flash Gordon serial with 
Buster Crabbe, and Mickey Mouse cartoons. Detective stories, hor- 
ror fiction, comic strips, and adventure tales all inspired his juvenile 
imagination as images of Little Orphan Annie, Jack Armstrong, Tom 
Mix, Buck Rogers, and Dick Tracy danced in his head. 40 

Hugh cherished particular favorites. He idolized the cartoonist 
Milton Caniff, creator of the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Pat 
Ryan, the protagonist, was a debonair adventurer whose pipe-smoking 
later inspired Hefner to take up the habit. The movie Tarzan and His 
Mate also left a big imprint. The boy imbibed its images of virtuous 
nature, rapacious white hunters, and benevolent jungle creatures. 
“What do you get from animals that you don’t get from people all the 
time?” Hefner explained. “Non-judgmental love.” 41 

Indeed, movies became his greatest boyhood passion. He would 
go to local theaters two or three times a week, sometimes seeing a 
double feature in the afternoon with his brother and then another 
with his parents in the evening. He loved mystery films, horror 
films, and westerns, but musicals inspired his greatest devotion. 
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s he sat enthralled by Fred 
Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, 
and the Busby Berkeley films. He had boyhood crushes on stars such 
as Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and Deanna Durbin. The reason musicals 
had such a powerful impact, he later concluded, was that “you could 
say things in the lyrics of songs that you couldn’t express any other 
way — to begin a romance, to express lost love, and ... to feel the 
dreams and the yearnings.” In musicals, he believed, “What you are 
trying to do is fill that yearning to be loved.” 42 

Popular culture filled an emotional void in the boy’s life. Craving 
more affection than he was receiving at home, he embraced the 
intensely romantic images and music found in the Hollywood musi- 
cals of the Depression era. This bright, sensitive child saw the movies 
as a way to connect with life . In the darkened theater, he recalled years 
later, “You could be transported to another world — the world of the 
imagination. And that, in turn was then reflected in the life that was 
most important to me, which was the life of my own imagination.” 43 
Thoroughly caught up in America’s modern culture of self- 
fulfillment, this midwestern youth moved toward adulthood. Entering 
high school, he did not yet know that it would be a golden age in his 
life, one he would ever after try to recapture. 



28 


MR. PLAYBOY 


III 

Hugh Hefner enrolled at Steinmetz High School in January 1940. 
Although colored by typical adolescent angst, it unfolded as a remark- 
ably positive period, with two events proving crucial. First, he became 
the leader of a social group of close friends, and second, around 
age seventeen, he created the persona of an imaginative, romantic 
figure whose fantasies dominated the endeavors of his pals. In impor- 
tant ways, this became a template for his life. 

Bursting with energy, the teenager plunged headlong into numer- 
ous school activities that allowed his creativity to flower. Journalism 
provided one outlet. As a sophomore he started a small paper called 
the Hour Glass , and the following year he began working as a reporter, 
cartoonist, and circulation manager for the regular school paper, 
the Steinmetz Star. Theater also attracted Hefner, and he appeared 
in several school plays. He also wrote, directed, and appeared in a 
fifteen-minute horror film titled “Return from the Dead” that was 
shot with a 16-millimeter camera borrowed from a neighbor and fea- 
tured two of his best friends. 44 

More importantly, however, he created a gang of close friends. 
It began with Hefners strong friendship with Jim Brophy. The two 
boys had known one another since grade school, but in high school 
the bond between them became unbreakable. They presented differ- 
ent personalities. Brophy, a whiz at science and an excellent student, 
pursued ham radio as a hobby and won several science awards at 
Steinmetz. He would graduate fourth in a class of just over two hun- 
dred and would go on to forge a career as a physics professor. Hefner, 
while very bright, tended to be a lackadaisical student who poured 
his energy into creative endeavors such as writing, acting, and car- 
tooning. But the pair shared great intelligence along with an absurd, 
slapstick sense of humor. “[We] thought each other to be hysterically 
funny,” Brophy recalled. “Our personalities were veiy different, but 
we sparked each others imaginations.” Hefner described them as 
the “Hope and Crosby” of Steinmetz High as they played off of one 
another with jokes and gags. They even dressed similarly with flannel 
or checkered shirts and saddle shoes. 45 

The Hefner-Brophy friendship became the focal point of a 
Steinmetz group who began hanging out together by 1942. Composed 
equally of boys and girls, the gang included Hefner and Dorothy 



A BOY AT PLAY 


29 


Novak, Jim Brophy and Janie Borson, Betty Conklin and Bob 
Clousten, and Dorothy Diephouse and Bob Haugland. They went 
to movies and dances, played jazz records, threw parties with inno- 
cent kissing games, and drove around in cars borrowed from parents, 
and Hefners identity became wrapped up in what he described as 
“the whole beautiful gang.” But little of the fun happened at the 
Hefner household. According to Brophy, it was “dark and dull . . . 
[and] there was not warmth or real interchange in that household. 
I think that’s one reason why Hef lived so intensely in our little circle 
of friends.” 46 

Then came a dramatic change in Hefners life. In the summer 
before his junior year, he had become interested in Betty Conklin, an 
outgoing girl who played the drums and idolized Gene Krupa. He saw 
her as the ultimate coed and they learned to jitterbug together, but 
when school started, she invited someone else to a hayride. Hefner 
was crushed and carried a torch for many years. Determined to make 
himself more attractive and popular, he decided on a personal over- 
haul. He began to refer to himself as “Hef,” adopted a more stylish 
wardrobe and suave manner, improved his dancing, began using hip 
expressions, and, in his words, “became the imaginary adolescent, 
the teenager that I wanted to be.” Wri t ing in 1942, he described this 
new persona as 

a lanky, Sinatra-like guy with a love for loud flannel shirts and 
cords in the way of garb, and jive for music. He looks and acts a 
lot like a High School kid you’d see in a movie. A very original 
fellow, he has his own style of jiving and slang expressions. . . . 

He calls everyone “Slug” or “Fiend” and his pet expression is 
“Jeeps Creeps.” 47 

This personal reinvention made Hefner one of the most popular 
students at Steinmetz High. Teaming with Jim Brophy, he emerged 
as a social leader whose gang became an elite group. “To be associ- 
ated with the famous team of ‘Hefner-Brophy’ was, for me, to be at 
the highest social pinnacle in the school,” Janie Sellers wrote Hefner 
many years later. “Together, I felt that you ran the whole school.” 
Indeed, Hefner took center stage at Steinmetz. Increasingly popu- 
lar, he parlayed his energy and creativity into election as president 
of the Student Council at the start of his senior year. Eventually, his 



30 


MR. PLAYBOY 


classmates voted him among the top three in the categories of “Most 
Likely to Succeed,” “Most Popular Boy,” “Class Humorist,” “Best 
Orator,” “Best Dancer,” and “Most Artistic.” 48 

At this time, Hefner also began a project that would preoccupy 
him for the rest of his life. He began to chronicle his experiences in a 
cartoon autobiography. Inventing a character for himself called “Goo 
Heffer,” the youth composed dozens of comic strips that followed 
every twist and turn in his gangs activities in funny, charming, and 
occasionally poignant style. Sometimes he fictionalized their encoun- 
ters a bit to add drama or humor. Hefner would pass the strips around 
among the group, who enjoyed them immensely, before carefully 
pasting them into scrapbooks. The adolescent justified the project on 
several grounds: he liked to draw, he often found school to be boring, 
it would entertain his friends, and it would provide an interesting 
record of his teenage years to look back on in later life. 49 

But there were also deeper impulses at work. Quite self-consciously, 
the cartoons centered on the author, self-described variously as 
“our hero,” a “Sinatra-type of guy,” or “the type of high school kid 
you would see in the movies.” They made Hefner the pivot around 
which the gang revolved, and his descriptions of their life became 
the prevailing ones. “Hef always had a strong interest in self,” noted 
Brophy. “He loved living in his imagination.” At some level, Hefner 
was aware of this self-promotion. “In the comic book, you create a 
world in which the hero of the story is you, and you include your 
friends in the story,” he observed later. “And you pass it around, and 
you are the center of that little world that you created.” Hefners 
vibrant imagination also came into play. While based on real people 
and events, the stories offered a narrative where, in his own words, 
“The truth is twisted to make a better comic. . . . And with the char- 
acters the same thing is true.” This blurring of fact and fantasy, he 
admitted, “may be confusing, especially since photographs of a lot 
of them [his friends] are put here. And well admit it is difficult to 
photograph a fictional character. Well, I’m confused too.” 50 

Hefner s talent for imaginative recreation gained strength from his 
immersion in popular culture. His adolescent interests ran the gamut 
of pop culture venues in 1940s America: swing dancing and music, 
cartoons and radio plays, slick paper magazines, and Hollywood 
movies. The teenager loved the big band music of Glenn Miller, 
Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James and even wrote a swing tune 



A BOY AT PLAY 


31 


titled “The A-Card Blues.” He became a crusader for student rights 
regarding music and dancing, complaining publicly about the staid 
school dances. “The majority of the students who dance prefer jive, 
but the moment you start even a simple jive break, someone steps up 
and stops you,” he grumbled. “If the Friday night dances are for us 
students, why not give us the kind of music we enjoy?” As president 
of the Student Council, he worked unsuccessfully to have a jukebox 
placed in the cafeteria so students could dance during lunch hour. 
An article titled “A Saga in Jive” by “Hep Hef” playfully related a 
story in jive talk. “If you Stein studes are really hep you ought to be 
able to dig the jive talk,” he wrote. “I say you are a bunch of squares. 
Well, lets see.” 51 

Hefner also began exhibiting a trait that would define much of his 
adult life — a powerful attraction to females. He displayed a dawning 
awareness of sexuality that, while steeped in innocence and romance, 
veered close to obsession. The introverted youngster had several 
schoolboy crushes on various girls before finally taking one of them 
to see a movie in eighth grade on his first real date. During his first 
two years of high school, Hefner was attracted to a pretty girl named 
Beverly Allen, whom he fell for when she kissed him while playing 
Post Office at a party. The next few years saw a parade of high school 
girlfriends: Betty Conklin, Edith Biowski, Dorothy Novak. 52 

As his interest in the opposite sex flowered, the adolescent Hefner 
bridled at social restrictions regarding the mysterious, yet compelling 
area of sex. A 1938 article in Life magazine, titled “A Tragedy of 
Youth,” had made a deep impression. It told the sad tale of a teen- 
age boy and girl in New York City who, after she became pregnant, 
made a suicide pact that produced one death and a murder trial for 
the survivor. The story resonated with twelve-year-old Hefner, who, 
while not completely understanding the issues, saw it as an example 
of social rules that created misery rather than happiness. The follow- 
ing year he saw the rerun of a pre-code film with his mother. When 
one of the female characters made a suggestive remark, Grace whis- 
pered, “Well, they couldn’t get away with that today.” Hugh thought 
silently, “Gee, I wish they could.” In high school, he argued with 
his mother about the wisdom and propriety of having sex with girls. 
Grace insisted that “you run the risk of bringing a life into the world 
that you have no way of taking care of, and you don’t have the right.” 
Her eldest son contended that since pregnancy could be avoided, 



32 


MR. PLAYBOY 


sexual relations should be permitted. Even as a teenager, Hefner 
chafed against authority and its proscription of sex. 53 

Meanwhile, Hefners growing interest in females and sexuality 
found an enticing outlet. In the eighth grade he discovered Esquire 
magazine in the basement of a girlfriends house — her father was a 
subscriber — and started to read old copies of this mens magazine. He 
became particularly fascinated with the pinup drawings by George 
Petty, whose lush, idealized depictions of women in various states of 
undress had begun to appear in the magazine in 1933. He started col- 
lecting “Petty Girls” and hanging them on the walls of his bedroom. 
A bit later he discovered pinups drawn by the artist Alberto Vargas, 
also in Esquire, and began adding “Vargas Girls” to his collection. 
Grace disapproved, but her modem sensibility overcame her religious 
scruples and she did not make him take them down. Keith, interested 
in acting, had tacked up posters of movie stars in his bedroom, and 
she decided that both her boys should be allowed to pursue their 
own ideas. “I think for a supposedly narrow-minded person, I was 
rather broad minded to allow them to do those things,” she observed 
later. One of Hefners favorite Petty Girl drawings portended the 
future — an attractive young woman whimsically outfitted in a pink 
bunny suit complete with long ears. 54 

Hefners actual romantic life, however, failed to meet the Esquire 
standard. Instead, it reflected a typical teenage pattern of awkward 
advances, flashes of euphoria, occasional rejection, recurrent confu- 
sion, and fun. It also embodied his consuming desire to be in love. As 
Brophy explained, “Hef was constantly falling in love. ... If he wasn’t 
in love, he felt incomplete and unhappy.” But Hefner was no teenage 
lothario. Often shy and awkward with girls, he offered a bright, sweet, 
energetic temperament and an underwhelming physical presence. 
He “was unusually skinny,” said Janie Borson, one of the gang. “That 
was his problem with the girls. We were looking for Tyrone Power.” 
But as “Goo Heffer” philosophized in the cartoon autobiography, “If 
ya don’t get mixed up with wimmen, ya don’t have no fun. So you’re 
miserable. If ya do, their friends get sore if ya hit the rocks. And with 
no friends, you’re miserable. So it’s evident that wimmen are gonna 
cause ya misery no matter what. But I love ‘em anyway.” 55 

By the last year of high school, Hefner had gained a little sex- 
ual experience. Going steady with a couple of girls had led to kiss- 
ing and petting, and occasionally he even got into trouble with his 



A BOY AT PLAY 


33 


mild-mannered parents for going too far. Glenn became furious one 
evening when Hugh arrived home in the early morning hours after a 
late date. His father burst out, ‘“Where the god-damn hell have you 
been?’ And it was the one and only time in my entire life that I ever 
heard him swear,” Hefner recalled. Another time he cuddled with 
a girl in the rumble seat as he was out driving around with friends. 
When the father warned sternly that such behavior was not accept- 
able, the son observed that the edict “of course, gave the whole idea 
of a rumble seat a very romantic connection.” 56 

Thus during childhood and adolescence Hugh Hefner immersed 
himself in a fantasy world that he created from available elements in 
his young life. A family atmosphere of emotional repression created 
longings for emotional connection. As Victorian tradition vied with 
modern social science in the Hefner household, he encountered ves- 
tiges of restraint while enjoying a general atmosphere of indulgence 
and encouragement. Authority appeared distant, abstract, and vaguely 
defined. When strictures were imposed by parents, school, or church, 
they seemed all the more severe because of their infrequency. 

For this bright, creative child, popular culture promised happi- 
ness. Movies, cartoons, magazines, swing music, and dancing pre- 
sented visions of self-fulfillment where romance, adventure, and 
intense personal experience were the norm. By the time he became 
a teenager Hefner viewed his life in terms of a movie plot and himself 
in terms of a cinematic character. Restless, ambitious, and increas- 
ingly committed to his own fantasies, he desperately sought emo- 
tional satisfaction. Like growing numbers in the culture of modem 
America, he felt entitled to it. 

But the key question, of course, was how to find such gratification. 
As he left the warm cocoon of high school in 1944, Hugh Hefner 
entertained vague hopes of being a cartoonist with his own strip, 
or of working for a magazine as a writer. But first he was forced to 
confront an international crisis that had swept through the lives of all 
Americans, even those living sheltered lives in midwestern cities. 



2 


Boot Camp, College, 
and Kinsey 


A s Hugh Hefner prepared to graduate from high school in early 
1944, he faced an uncertain future. On the one hand, he had 
deep misgivings about abandoning the golden days of late 
adolescence and his gang of pals at Steinmetz High. On the other 
hand, the wider world beckoned. Since late 1941, World War II had 
dominated American life, and respectable young men were expected 
to enter the military during this national crisis. Young Hefner felt the 
obligation keenly. With determination, and a bit of trepidation, he 
joined the army and prepared for a new stage in his life. 


I 

It began with girls. As with so many other episodes in his adulthood, 
Hefner’s embrace of military life became entangled with his romantic 
relationships. Just as he was about to graduate, he fell into an intense, 


34 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


35 


if innocent, love affair with Janie Borson. The girlfriend of his best pal, 
Jim Brophy, she had idolized Hefner and admired his creative talent 
for years and the two had maintained a close friendship throughout 
high school. By accident, they found themselves alone together in 
early 1944 a couple of times and several long, soulful talks produced 
a passionate kiss. They wrote anguished letters to one another trying 
to sort out their feelings, but both were reluctant to betray Brophy. 
An unexpected solution appeared when Hefner met someone else. 1 

Shortly after graduation, Hefner attended a party of Steinmetz 
High kids and met a young woman who had been a classmate. He 
recognized the face but did not really know her. Mildred Williams 
was the type of girl he found attractive — cute, vivacious, with dark 
hair, bangs, and bobby socks. The two talked for a long time, flirted 
a bit, and eventually she sat on his lap. Later he discovered that she 
had done so to make another boy jealous, but there was a mutual 
attraction. By the end of the evening they had made plans to see each 
other again. 2 

Millie played the violin, was athletic, and came from a blue-collar 
family. Her mother was a housewife and devoted Catholic who 
regularly shepherded Millie and her four sisters to Mass. Her father, 
a streetcar conductor and later a bus driver, had left the Catholic 
Church years before. An avid reader, he had educated himself and 
became an avowed communist, often commenting to his daughter, 
“We should have it as good as they do in Russia.” He also tended to be 
very strict, even authoritarian, with his family and absolutely refused 
to allow his daughters to date until they were sixteen. 3 

Hugh and Millie had several dates during the two weeks between 
the time they met and the day he left for military service. He picked 
her up from her job at the Mars candy company and they would have 
a soda or see a movie. Eager to be in love as always, Hefner fell hard 
for this young woman and promised to write her faithfully while he 
was away. She promised to do the same, although with less conviction. 
True to his deepest instincts, Hefner enveloped Millie in a romantic 
fantasy. This relationship, which existed largely on paper except for a 
couple of brief furloughs when he returned to Chicago, would sustain 
him over the next two years. 4 

Hefner, still a boy at age seventeen — he stood about five foot ten 
inches and weighed 115 pounds — started his stint in the armed ser- 
vices as a cadet in the Army Specialized Training Reserve program. 



36 


MR. PLAYBOY 


As his alter ego, Goo Heffer, noted in the comic autobiography, he 
was leaving comfortable surroundings and would soon “be carrying a 
gun as are so many of his age in this age. Goo doesn’t like this change, 
any more than most of us but he’s ‘stuck with it’ and so will try to make 
the most of it.” 5 

He left Chicago in March 1944 for the University of Wisconsin 
campus to undergo initial training. Arriving with several suitcases 
containing all the amenities of home, including typewriter, alarm clock, 
and clothes hangers, he bunked with two new roommates in the three- 
to-a-room dormitories. Over the next several weeks, the new enlistees 
studied academic subjects, participated in an ROTC curriculum, and 
practiced marching. Hefner also lugged along the several volumes of 
his comic autobiography, which he shared with his bunkmates and 
other cadets in the evenings. Drawn into the orbit of his life, the 
trainees enjoyed the comic strips so much that they would grill Hefner 
about his high school experiences and pals. One even asked about the 
possibility of writing to one of the girls depicted in the comic. 6 

Like many young men in the service away from home for the first 
time, Hefner grew sentimental and homesick. On May 14, 1944, for 
example, he wrote a long letter to his mother and father baring his 
emotions: 

There is a great deal that I feel that I have never said. There’s 
a great deal of gratitude that I have never really expressed. 
There are things that I never really appreciated fully until 
I came here to Wisconsin — they are the things you’ve done and 
sacrificed for me. I’ve felt them more in the last few months 
than ever before. . . . When I look back I realize how very lucky 
both Keith and I have been to have grown up in a home with so 
much love and fairness. In what I would term a “democratic” 
home. . . . When I learn of how some fellas or girls have been 
brought up with too much discipline or not enough love it 
makes me feel plenty sorry for them and plenty grateful to 
you. ... I want you to be proud of me. I think you’re the best 
mom, and pop’s the best dad, that a fellow could have. 

This letter illustrated Hefner’s sweet temperament, but also sug- 
gested that serious disgruntlement with his childhood was the prod- 
uct of later life. 7 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


37 


One aspect of the army shocked Hefner, however. For the first 
time in his life he encountered social attitudes far different from the 
liberal values he had imbibed in childhood. In particular, outbursts of 
anti-Semitism and racism punctuated discussions among the cadets 
and he found the bigotry hard to digest. He heard nasty cracks about 
fellow soldiers who were Jewish and derogatory comments about a 
local Jewish girl he took to a few dances, incidents that caused him to 
confront the speakers a couple of times. While there were no African 
Americans in his training group, Hefner also heard racist slurs, such 
as references to the jazz he liked as “nigger music.” In a letter home, 
he acknowledged that out in the world “you meet all kinds of preju- 
dices and hatreds and it makes me glad and proud to know I have no 
such hatreds.” But when he came home on furlough, he complained 
that his mother had “created a fairy land” and overprotected him 
from the real world during his childhood. She had taught him that 
“all people are good people, and all people have the same values and 
the same noble thoughts and ambitions,” Keith Hefner reported. “So 
that you’re not prepared when — wham! — it isn’t so.” 8 

After several months at Madison, Hefner was processed through 
the Fort Sheridan reception center in Illinois in June 1944 and began 
a typical, nomadic army stint. He departed first for basic training at 
Camp Hood in Texas. Things now had become deadly serious, as he 
noted in his comic autobiography: “Schooling for death, or for the 
preservation of his own life.” He did well in basic training, suffering 
injury only from a serious sunburn gained in the oppressive climate. 
He won a sharpshooter badge for firing the Ml rifle and made it 
through “Killer College” at the end of basic training where troops 
went through maneuvers while throwing real grenades, hearing live 
ammunition zinging overhead, and completing a twenty-five-mile 
hike with full equipment. He also did extensive antitank training 
during the last period of his stay at Camp Hood. 9 

After a brief furlough in Chicago, Hefner reported to Fort Chaffee, 
Arkansas, in October 1944 for additional training as an infantry rifle- 
man. After more instruction at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma, he was 
ordered to Fort Meade, Maryland. There he awaited processing 
to go to a port of embarkation for active overseas duty. Then came 
news that changed his army life enormously. He had been assigned 
to the “Chairborne Infantry” by getting a desk job as a clerk in S-l, 
or personnel, because of his typing skills. A delighted Hefner 



38 


MR. PLAYBOY 


appreciated this “dandy break” because, in his words, he liked 
“Washingtons women very much.” A series of clerk assignments 
followed in Camp Adair near Salem, Oregon, and Camp Pickett, 
Virginia. 10 

Throughout his army days, Hefner pursued creative endeavors. 
He drew numerous cartoons for the army newspapers and wrote a 
satirical song titled “I’d Make a Hell of a Good Civilian” that his 
company sang and marched to. He regularly attended dances at his 
various postings and found diversion in his favorite boyhood hobby, 
noting, “My escape, always, throughout the army days, was the mov- 
ies.” The army showed first-run movies to the troops almost weekly 
and he frequented theaters in nearby towns whenever possible. And, 
of course, he worked steadily on his comic autobiography, draw- 
ings dozens of strips depicting Goo Heffer and his life in the army. 
Hanging over Hefners head, however, was threat of active deploy- 
ment either for combat or, by the summer of 1945, as part of a force 
occupying Japan. In early August 1945, he commented in his comic 
autobiography that Hiroshima and Nagasaki “marks the beginning of 
an age, the Atomic Age. . . . Where does Goo go from here? Home 
or overseas for occupation?” 11 

Meanwhile, Hefner courted Millie Williams from afar. From 
March 15 to August 27, 1945, for example, he wrote her over eighty 
letters. Addressed to “Dearest Millie,” they combined gushy expres- 
sions of romantic feeling with confessions of loneliness and boredom. 
In a letter of March 27, 1945, he described how hearing a popular 
song on the radio titled “Tve Said It” made him think of her: 

Music like that, and some of these wonderful nights, really 
put me into moods. I dream of being with you. Of being far 
out in the country on a cool spring evening in the car, with the 
radio turned on softly. Or out on some hillside on a beauti- 
ful spring evening with not a care in the world and no one to 
bother us. Of course, being a fella in love, I guess I think of 
some slightly different things than you do at times. Quite a bit 
on the physical side. 12 


Hefners infatuation with Millie, however, did not keep him from 
dating many other girls while in the army. In Wisconsin, he met a 
local high school girl and took her on several dates. He wrote many 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


39 


long letters to Janie Borson, with whom he kept a strong friendship, 
and in one confessed that his relationship with Millie might not 
last. “We’re too different in too many ways and every now and then 
I know I’m still the same old wolf ’cause I get other femmes on the 
mind,” he wrote. While in Washington he dated several girls, and 
upon arrival in Salem, Oregon, a college town, he attended dozens 
of dances and became involved with at least two young women. As 
he would note later, during his army days he “created this world of 
romantic adventure” that saw many casual dates but no serious emo- 
tional involvement. 13 

Hefner’s military career finally ground to a halt with the general 
demobilization after the conclusion of World War II. Early in 1946 
he made corporal and a few months later received an honorable dis- 
charge from the U.S. Army. In May 1946 he returned to Chicago to 
get on with his life. 14 


II 

Like many other young men after World War II, Hugh Hefner was 
at loose ends after his discharge from the military. He attended a 
couple of dances at Steinmetz High School to recapture some of his 
high school glory, but his pals were gone and things weren’t the same. 
He revisited Salem to see the girls he had dated, but once again was 
unable to recapture the fun times he had enjoyed there. Finally, he 
took an art class in anatomy drawing at the Chicago Art Institute 
in summer 1946. But overall, as he confessed, “in Chicago I felt 
really lost.” 15 

Millie, in the meantime, was attending the University of Illinois 
at Urbana, some ninety miles south of Chicago. Although neither 
she nor Hefner was quite sure about their relationship — she also 
had dated others during his army service — she had accepted his pin. 
So Hefner made a decision that met several objectives. He enrolled 
at the university on the GI Bill, which allowed him to escape the 
aimlessness of Chicago, take steps toward finding a career, and be 
with his girlfriend. Moreover, after taking several tests administered 
by the government, he discovered that he could get advanced credit 
that would, in combination with a heavy course schedule, allow him 
to graduate in two and a half years. 16 



40 


MR. PLAYBOY 


So in September 1946, Hefner embarked upon a college career. 
His expectations were somewhat unrealistic. As with so many other 
things, his vision of college life had come out of the movies and 
centered on “raccoon coats and dances and jalopies,” as he put it. 
But the influx of GIs after the war was changing the atmosphere 
at American universities as they became more crowded, more seri- 
ous, and more career-oriented. After spending a semester living in a 
university-approved house, he was accepted into the Granada Club, 
an independent rooming house for young men off Green Street. He 
became roommates with Bob Preuss, established a fresh circle of 
friends, and threw himself into a new round of experiences. 17 

Hefner had vague hopes of being a cartoonist or writer. But he 
decided to major in psychology because of his fascination with human 
behavior and motivation. “I felt that if I could unlock those secrets 
and understand that, then it would serve me very well as a writer and 
in life.” Minoring in creative writing and art, he performed quite 
well scholastically, and was pledged by Phi Eta Sigma, the freshman 
scholastic honorary society, and initiated into Chi Gamma Iota, 
the veterans’ scholastic honorary society. At the end of his freshman 
year, he received recognition for “excellence in scholarship” at the 
Annual Honors Day convocation. By his senior year, he was ranked 
in the top 10 percent of his class and allowed to do some independent 
study. 18 

Hefner also pursued artistic endeavors. He regularly published 
cartoons both in the Daily Illini, the official student newspaper at the 
university, and Shaft, a campus humor magazine. He crossed paths 
with Gene Shalit, who worked as the sports editor of the newspaper 
and editor of the magazine. His favorite class in college was a writing 
course offered by Samson Baphaelson, the prominent screenwriter 
and playwright, who was visiting the campus. He had authored The 
Jazz Singer and several comedies for Ernst Lubitsch and later would 
write Suspicion for Alfred Hitchcock. This wri t ing seminar had only a 
handful of students and it met regularly at Raphaelson’s home, where 
he would talk intimately with students about his craft. Hefner was 
enthralled by this liberal Jewish intellectual. “He was like a men- 
tor for me, and an inspiration because of what he stood for,” he said 
later. 19 

Plunging into his studies and experiencing the intellectual excite- 
ment of university life, he received a quiet gesture of support from 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


41 


his mother. Perhaps sensing a lack of confidence in her oldest son, 
Grace decided to inform him that a boyhood intelligence test had 
disclosed a genius IQ of 152. On Mothers Day 1948, an appreciative 
Hefner wrote a long letter expressing a renewed faith in his abilities 
and appreciation for loving parents: 

First, a confession: not since high school have I had any real 
faith in my own ability, or in the future. The news about 
my I.Q. has given me the spark I lost so long ago. I cannot 
express to you the difference it has wrought in my outlook, in 
my innermost feelings. Egotism is a dangerous thing, but self 
confidence in ones own ability is so very necessary to happy 
living. . . . 

My childhood, my growing into manhood, were wonderfully 
happy years. No one is more responsible for that happiness 
than you. I remember the long hours spent with both Keith 
and me; the time and energy you sacrificed. . . . There is no 
way in which I can ever adequately repay you for all that you 
have done for me. 20 

No bookworm, Hefner pursued a variety of extracurricular 
activities during his college years. Football became a passion, and 
the 1946 Fighting Illini team had no greater fan as it won the con- 
ference title. He filled his scrapbook with enthusiastic descriptions 
of the games and heroic sketches of key players. After Illinois beat 
UCFA in the Rose Bowl by a score of 41-14, he even exclaimed, 
“Who cares if communism is moving across Europe and Palestine 
is caught in the throes of civil war?” At the Granada Club, Hefner 
achieved a reputation as an intense but fun-loving guy. He loved 
playing long games of Monopoly, gin rummy, and bridge with his 
housemates. He also developed an interest in airplanes and by 1947 
had taken enough lessons and logged enough flying time to get his 
private pilots license. 21 

Music also occupied much time and energy. Hefner subscribed 
to Down Beat, listened faithfully to Dave Garroway, an influential 
DJ, and followed the twists and turns of taste in popular music. His 
record collection, based on singers such as Billie Holiday and Peggy 
Fee, became legendary in the Granada Club for its size and avant- 
garde quality. Hefner built and painted a pair of cabinets to house his 



42 


MR. PLAYBOY 


collection, which he expanded at every opportunity. Dances, of course, 
occurred frequently on campus and he attended regularly with Millie. 
During his last year at the University of Illinois, Hefner even sang in 
a combo with a couple of friends from the Granada Club accompa- 
nying him on bass and guitar. Advertisements described him as “The 
Boy with the Bop in his Voice” and the “Campus Ballad King.” He 
imitated the style of a popular singer, Frankie Laine, and performed 
his songs, such as “My Desire” and “A Sunday Kind of Love .” 22 

In reflective moments, Hefner wrestled with the religious legacy 
of his childhood. For his final project in Raphaelson’s writing seminar, 
he presented a gothic play with a religious theme. Its plot focused on 
a biochemist’s claim that he had stumbled across proof that God did 
not exist, a discovery that led to anguished debates with his son and, 
eventually, patricide and suicide. The story represented “a conflict 
over whether the world is better off with or without the knowledge,” 
the author explained. “Is truth all important, or is the world better 
left in ignorance ?” 23 

Hefner also continued a years-long debate with his parents over 
the validity of Christian doctrine. After Grace sent him a pious article 
titled “Goodness and Decency Belong on Top,” he replied politely 
but skeptically. Traditional religion was “trying to sell an absolute 
standard in moral and spiritual life, and fact seems to strongly suggest 
that no such thing exists — that morals are a relative thing, etc.,” he 
wrote. While he continued to believe in God, he doubted whether a 
just deity would judge people living in the wilds of South America or 
the cities of China according to Western Christianity. “I have a much 
better philosophy of my own — an altruistic seeking for happiness 
on this earth,” Hefner added. “No absolute standards — instead, the 
judgment of each act measured in terms of the amount of happiness 
or unhappiness it will bring to people .” 24 

Throughout college, Hefner poured much of his emotional energy 
into his relationship with Millie Williams. They went steady during 
his entire two and a half years in Urbana. She lived in Colonial Manor, 
an independent house for women, and was already a junior when he 
arrived. “Millie and I are going great guns at the moment,” Hefner 
wrote to Janie Borson just a few weeks before starting college. “When 
she finds out about all my G.I. romances shell probably never speak 
to me. But then again, mebbe’ she will for I’ve learned she’s had sev- 
eral of her own since I went away .” 25 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


43 


Indeed, the relationship was somewhat tenuous from the outset. 
They had spent very little time together during Hefners military 
service, relying on a “paper romance” while dating other people. She 
was pinned to another boy in Urbana when she accepted Hugh s pin. 
In practical terms, the two had very different interests — she liked 
athletics and classical music while he favored dancing and jazz — 
and when they played as bridge partners, bickering always seemed 
to occur. Both expressed misgivings about the relationship, and a 
despondent Hefner once kept a chart of how he felt about her over 
a several-month period. He found the highest ratings came when she 
was away. 26 

But their lust was bubbling furiously. Throughout their college 
years, Hugh and Millie would drive into the country and pet heavily. 
The sexual frustration became palpable as he would pull back at the 
last minute from actual sexual intercourse because she was afraid of 
becoming pregnant and failing to graduate. Occasionally they engaged 
in oral sex. But both found these intimate encounters — racing to 
the edge of consummation, then throwing on the brakes to avoid 
disaster — to be emotionally draining. Millie saw it as “destructive.” 
Hugh described it sardonically as “a relationship held together by two 
and a half years of foreplay.” Finally, as Millie was about to graduate 
in the spring of 1948, they decided to lose their virginity and went 
away for the weekend to the nearby town of Danville. Predictably, 
it was a letdown. They stayed in a seedy hotel, saw a lousy movie on 
Sunday, and found the actual sexual act to be disappointing after such 
an enormous buildup. “It was not a very romantic weekend,” Hefner 
recalled. 27 

But Hefner, true to his nature, remained determined to be in 
love. Despite misgivings, he propped up the relationship and talked 
regularly of marriage. Millie, equally uncertain, went along because 
“I didn’t see any alternative to it, to be perfectly honest. ... He 
kept insisting that I was the one he wanted to spend his life with.” 
Hefner created a fantasy of romance and placed Millie at the center 
of it, even when both of them sensed it was overblown. By the time 
she graduated in the late spring of 1948, they were talking seriously 
of marriage. Even though he harbored doubts about the relation- 
ship, whenever Millie hesitated he would reassure her and insist 
that she was “just being nervous about the wedding coming up,” she 
recalled. 28 



44 


MR. PLAYBOY 


In the meantime, however, Hefner had become enthralled with 
one of the most controversial books to appear in postwar America. It 
dealt with a subject that increasingly fascinated him both personally 
and intellectually — sex. 


Ill 

In 1948, Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human 
Male. Described by one critic as “the most talked about book of the 
twentieth century,” it sold some 200,000 copies within two months of 
its release. Reviews appeared everywhere — newspapers and maga- 
zines, journals of opinion, literary and professional journals — and the 
pollster George Gallup reported that one out of five Americans had 
read or heard about the book within a short time after its publication. 
As one scholar has put it, “Overnight ‘Kinsey’ became a household 
word, his name forever embedded in popular culture.” 29 

Why did Kinsey galvanize the popular imagination? Confident 
that the erosion of Victorian standards had prepared Americans to 
engage sexuality more frankly, he examined sexual behavior dispas- 
sionately and presented his results as scientific fact “divorced from 
questions of moral value and social customs.” Kinsey and his staff 
interviewed several hundred men at great length, asking dozens of 
detailed questions, and analyzed a host of variables — social class and 
ethnicity, age, marital status, geographical location, religious affilia- 
tion, educational level, job or profession — that influenced sexual activ- 
ity. Kinsey found a widespread violation of traditional sexual standards 
with regard to masturbation, petting, and premarital or extramarital 
sex. He delved into more controversial subjects by introducing his 
famous heterosexual-homosexual continuum, suggesting that pre- 
marital chastity hindered sexual fulfillment, and exploring the nature 
of orgasms. When a companion study, Sexual Behavior in the Human 
Female, was published in 1953, it showed American women sharing 
in the same varied sexual behavior. By bringing discussion of sexuality 
out into the open, Kinsey signaled a new era of sexual frankness in 
American life. 30 

Americans reacted immediately. The Kinsey Report, as it became 
known, reflected a loosening of sexual mores that had been occur- 
ring since early in the twentieth century. Supporters stressed that 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


45 


this researcher had merely exposed to view the actual behavior of 
Americans and that these facts must be faced in order to forge real- 
istic moral principles and social policies. But Kinseys findings also 
shocked a middle-class society committed to consumer conformity 
and traditional morality. Critics of Sexual Behavior in the Human 
Male denounced it for encouraging a degradation of American moral- 
ity and mounting an attack on the family structure. More sophisti- 
cated critiques chided Kinsey for focusing on the biology of sex while 
neglecting important cultural, psychological, emotional, and social 
dimensions. But regardless of attitude, a majority of Americans prob- 
ably agreed with Time magazine that Kinseys most striking achieve- 
ment had been his “open discussion of sex . . . which got such matters 
as homosexuality, masturbation, coitus, and orgasm into most papers 
and family magazines.” 31 

Hefner was primed for reaction to the Kinsey uproar. His personal 
frustrations with Millie and their physical relationship had created 
emotional agitation over issues of sexuality. In addition, his healthy 
interest in girls and sex since adolescence had grown into a preoc- 
cupation during his college days. Even as he prepared to depart for 
the University of Illinois in August 1946, he joked to Janie Borson, 
“Finished my course of drawing nekkid women at the Art Institute 
last Friday. Considered continuing my study at the Bialto [burlesque 
theater] but the gals move around too much there.” Over the next 
couple of years, Hefner became fixated on sex as an expression of 
both his thwarted physical desires and his emotional inclination to 
create fantasies of self-fulfillment. 32 

Many of Hefners collegiate cartoons for the Daily Mini and Shaft, 
for instance, had sexual themes. One showed a cop approaching a 
male and female student necking in a car parked along the street. The 
guy looks out and says, “Whatsamatter? Whatsamatter? I paid my 
nickel [in the parking meter]!” Another displayed two guys drawing a 
naked young woman in an art class on anatomy, as one says incredu- 
lously, “And we get three hours credit for it too?” A more elaborate 
cartoon featured one panel where a guy is chasing a gal as the caption 
says, “In the spring a young mans fancy lightly turns to ...” A second 
panel shows her turning around and chasing him as the caption reads, 
“What a girl’s been thinking of all year long!” 33 

Shaft, for which Hefner became managing editor during his second 
year at Illinois, became a particular venue for his sexual enthusiasms. 



46 


MR. PLAYBOY 


He introduced a new feature to the humor magazine titled “Coed 
of the Month” that was a prototype for the Playboy Playmates. It 
offered an enticing photograph along with a brief description of her 
activities, hobbies, interests, and plans for the future. In an editorial 
column, he noted that while some students had lobbied for a special 
“sex issue,” he found the suggestion redundant: “Every issue of Shaft 
is a sex issue.” In April 1948, Look ran an article on college humor 
magazines and omitted Hefners publication. In a subsequent letter 
to the editor, he complained, “You neglected the lustiest, bustiest of 
them all — Illinois’ Shaft!” 34 

Hefners behavior also suggested a growing preoccupation with 
sexual matters. Bob Preuss, a roommate at the Granada House, was 
struck by his candor in talking about sex. “I remember him talking 
about coming and penetration — he was open,” Preuss recalled. “He 
would talk about stuff I’d never say.” Hefner also deployed sexual 
frankness in his relationship with Millie, telling her about liaisons 
with girls during his army days. Once, he even revealed that he had 
petted with one of her roommates, as well as with a couple of other 
young women, during the summer when she was gone. Hefner 
thought he was being honest, but she saw it as an attempt to gain 
emotional advantage in their relationship. 35 

Like nothing else, however, Kinseys Sexual Behavior in the Human 
Male electrified Hefner. It confirmed his growing sense that sex was 
central to the human experience and that Americans had enshrouded 
it in mists of superstition and hypocrisy. In a brief review in Shaft of 
“what may be 1948’s most important book,” he noted that Kinseys 
results indicated that “if American laws were rigidly enforced, ninety- 
five percent of all men and boys would be jailed as sex offenders.” 
Hefner reported that the book was disturbing because it “makes 
obvious the lack of understanding and realistic thinking that have 
gone into the formulation of our sex standards and laws. Our moral 
pretenses, our hypocrisy on matters of sex have led to incalculable 
frustration, delinquency, and unhappiness.” 36 

Hefners fascination with Kinsey colored his cartoons. A summer 
1948 offering in the Daily Illini depicted a furtive guy in a dark trench 
coat sidling up to the desk of the campus bookstore. A clerk says 
to another, “He wants to know if we’d be interested in handling an 
illustrated version of the Kinsey report.” Another showed a guy and 
gal sitting in a parked convertible. Wearing a low-cut dress, she is 



BOOT CAMP, COLLEGE, AND KINSEY 


47 


looking angrily out of the car while he holds his reddened cheek and 
pleads, “Aw, c’mon baby, I’ll never make the Kinsey Report if you act 
like that.” 37 

But Kinsey also became a catalyst for Hefner’s thinking in a larger 
sense. This scientist, in his view, had demonstrated that more sex 
was going on than polite American society ever admitted, and that 
ordinary people routinely flouted rules and conventions. Fascinated 
by Kinsey’s findings, Hefner read everything about the book that 
he could get his hands on. “Kinsey had a tremendous impact on 
me,” he recalled later. “It supplied the evidence that proved the 
things that I had been feeling for so many years, which was that 
what we said about our sexuality was not what we did. That we were 
hypocrites, and out of that came a good deal of hurt.” Kinsey spoke 
directly to important issues in the young man’s life, illustrating that 
“‘they’ made those laws and ‘they’ wouldn’t let me be intimate with 
my girlfriend.” 38 

Kinsey’s revolutionary report, however, failed to prepare Hefner 
for an aspect of the sexual revolution that hit much closer to home. 
Millie graduated from the University of Illinois in June 1948 and 
got a job teaching high school at Lee Center, Illinois, in the fall. She 
would visit Urbana periodically throughout the autumn, and the cou- 
ple became officially engaged on Christmas Day 1948. A few weeks 
later, however, a crisis developed that shook Hefner to the core. 

While in Chicago, the couple went to a Loretta Young movie 
called The Accused, which told the story of a schoolteacher who 
was harassed by a bright, aggressive student who offered her a ride 
one evening and then forced himself on her in the car. She resisted 
and hit her assailant on the head, accidentally killing him. Terrified, 
she rolled the body off a cliff, pulled herself together, and tried to 
resume her normal life. But discovery of the body and escalating 
guilt caused her to unravel emotionally. Millie looked increasingly 
uncomfortable during the movie, and when they went to the car after- 
wards she began sobbing hysterically. “I’ve done something terrible,” 
she gasped, but then refused to elaborate. After a confused Hefner 
insisted on an explanation, she finally confessed to a sexual liaison 
with a coach at the school where she was teaching. Still sobbing, she 
said that they had done it once, that it was not romantic or satisfying, 
and that she was consumed with guilt. Hefner was stunned. Although 
nearly speechless from shock, he told Millie he could forgive her 



48 


MR. PLAYBOY 


and offered assurances that that they would still get married. But 
privately, his equilibrium was shattered. 39 

Hefner was deeply hurt by Millie s revelation. Later he described 
it as “the single most devastating experience of my entire life.” He sat 
in his room for days afterward playing records, especially the Billy 
Eckstine song “Fool That I Am,” over and over. When visiting her 
in the small town where she taught, he would drive extremely fast — 
sometimes hitting ninety miles per hour and once getting a traffic 
ticket for speeding — as pain and resentment welled up. Overall, 
Millie s affair had a profound, if complex, impact on Hefner s attitudes. 
On the one hand, the rational side of him tried not to blame her and 
held society accountable for holding people to impossible sexual stan- 
dards. But on the other hand, his emotional side felt betrayal and pain. 
“The episode hung like a cloud over me until the marriage,” he said. 
“Nothing was ever the same between us again.” The affair, it seems 
clear, encouraged Hefner to distrust women and the notion of com- 
mitment to, and from, them. Even though he had necked and petted 
with other girls in college, he had never had sex with them. Bruising 
his male ego and, even more importantly, deflating the romantic fan- 
tasy he had built up around Millie, the affair scarred him for life. 40 

Thus Hefner graduated from the University of Illinois on 
February 6, 1949, with his personal life on shaky ground and his 
professional prospects uncertain. Evidence of disarray appeared in 
a decision to halt his beloved comic autobiography. He admitted 
that giving up this record of his experiences “wasn’t an easy deci- 
sion to make. It has been an intimate part of my life for more than 
six years. ... It will be like losing an old friend.” But finishing school 
and preparing to marry marked a new stage in his life. “It seems like 
a fitting place to write finis. I want to try my hand at professional car- 
tooning; I want to write a novel and some short stories,” he wrote. 41 

Little of this would come true. Hefner married Millie but he did not 
become a professional cartoonist, did not write a novel or short stories, 
and did not give up his autobiography. He could not foresee that over 
the next few years he would struggle mightily with shaping a career and 
fending off unhappiness before finally carving out a path in the society 
of postwar America. Only after a period of drift would he create some- 
thing that combined his obsession with popular culture, his criticism of 
American moral values, and his growing interest in sex. Then neither 
his life nor that of the larger society would ever be quite the same. 



3 


The Tie That Binds 


I n the fall of 1948, a few months before graduating from the 
I University of Illinois, Hugh Hefner wrote an apologetic letter to 
I his parents. He admitted that he had been distracted and morose in 
recent weeks as concerns about career and livelihood pressed heavily. 
“Thi s worry about my ability to earn a decent living in work for which 
I am suited, to gain a home and the things I want for my own future 
family, has given rise to this seeming lack of interest in what those 
about me are doing, and hence it seems at times that I just don’t 
care about anyone else,” he confessed. But such anxiety was normal, 
he assured his parents. It would pass. 

Hefners situation was not unusual. Male malaise, of course, had 
been rampant after World War II as millions of servicemen reen- 
tered domestic life and struggled to find jobs, reconnect with family, 
and find a direction for their lives. Hefner had postponed this crisis 
temporarily with college, but now he faced the world with hazy plans 
and half-formed goals. He knew that he wanted to get married, that 
art and journalism appealed to his imagination, and that becoming a 
writer or cartoonist would be nice. Beyond that, however, there was 
nothing concrete. The next few years would witness several episodes 


49 



50 


MR. PLAYBOY 


of false starts and dashed dreams before Hefner finally found his 
footing and created a vehicle to express many of his deepest impulses 
and values. 1 


I 

On June 15, 1949, Hugh Hefner married Millie Williams in a cer- 
emony held in the rectory next to Saint John Bosco Church. They 
had agreed to a Catholic ceremony to please her mother, but because 
Hefner was not Catholic they could not be married in the church itself. 
It was a modest, blue-collar event: the reception was held in the local 
VFW hall with food prepared by friends and family members. The 
newlyweds honeymooned for a few days at Styza’s Birchwood Lodge 
in Hazelhurst, Wisconsin. Upon returning to Chicago, they moved in 
with his parents on New England Avenue because of limited funds 
and the persistent postwar shortage of affordable housing. 2 

But things did not go smoothly. This was “a time of confusion and 
uncertainty,” in Hefners words, as he spun his wheels in trying to 
start a career. He initially sought work in Chicago’s newspapers and 
magazines, but with little experience and no contacts, “I didn’t have 
a clue of how to get started, how to make a connection.” Desperate, 
he finally took an unattractive job with the Chicago Carton Company 
on the South Side in April 1949 as an employment manager at a salary 
of $45 a week. He hated the job, and because he didn’t have a car, 
his father had to drive him to the train to go to work. Discouraged 
with his mundane tasks and disgusted by the company’s discrimina- 
tory hiring policies toward African Americans and Jews, he quit after 
only five months. 3 

Hefner remained unemployed throughout the fall of 1949 as he 
tried to develop and sell a pair of comic strips for newspaper syndi- 
cation. Finding no takers, he enrolled at Northwestern University 
in early 1950 with dreams of earning a graduate degree and starting 
a career as a college professor. “With a masters or doctors degree, 
I could teach (Sociology, I think) and write and draw to my heart’s 
content in all the free time a school teacher (particularly at the col- 
lege level) finds himself with,” he noted. After one semester, however, 
he left and reentered the workforce. He found a job as a copywriter 
at the Carson Pirie Scott department store in the Loop at a salary of 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


51 


$40 a week. “I’ve got a job writing — its copy writing to be sure, but 
it’s real, honest-to-goodness, creative writing with art and layout on 
the side,” he wrote excitedly. “It doesn’t pay much to start, but there’s 
a fine future in advertising, I’m learning plenty, and it’s something 
I really enjoy working at.” 4 

Six months later, Hefner landed a position at Esquire writing pro- 
motional copy at $60 a week. But the magazine that had enthralled 
him during boyhood as a paragon of sophistication and glamour 
proved disappointing. “It was not fulfilling,” he reported. “You actu- 
ally had to check in and punch a clock when you came in and then 
for lunch. So it was just a job.” Moreover, Esquire was closing down 
its Chicago operation and the editorial staff had already moved to 
New York. When the promotion and circulation staff prepared to do 
likewise, the magazine offered Hefner a cost-of-living increase but 
refused his request for an additional $5 a week. So he quit. In some 
vague way, he had decided that his future, no matter how undefined, 
lay in the Windy City. 5 

In January 1952, Hefner began work at Publisher’s Development 
Corporation, a company that published Modem Man , Art Photography , 
and Modem Sunbathing. These small magazines contained nude 
photos and had no subscriptions because of fear that the post office 
would pull them from the mail as obscene material. As manager 
of sales promotion and circulation, Hefner got to know newsstand 
dealers, distributors, printers, and the magazine market. But he 
found it an unpleasant place to work, even though he was earning 
$80 a week, because George Von Bosen, the hard-bitten owner, made 
his employees constantly fear for their jobs. So in early 1953, Hefner 
went to work for Childrens Activities as circulation promotion man- 
ager at a salary of $120 a week. This monthly children’s magazine was 
published by the Child Training Association and had a circulation of 
some quarter of a million. 6 

Thus Hefner shuffled through a series of unfulfilling jobs following 
college and found little to engage his interests, talents, and passions. 
His complaint about his first job at the Chicago Carton Company — 
“I’m going around in psychological circles. There’s no kick in the 
work, no feeling of accomplishment” — was repeated many times over 
the next four years. But throughout this period of distress, he tried 
to express his artistic and journalistic impulses in other ways. He 
launched several projects that lay nearer and dearer to his heart. 7 



52 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefner nourished a deep love for drawing, writing, popular music, 
and the movies, and yearned to express himself creatively. “I think he 
would have liked being an artist,” Millie observed. “I think that was his 
first love, art.” Thus in 1949, right out of college, he was delighted to 
secure an assignment writing movie reviews for a small local magazine 
titled Dale Harrisons Chicago. “Offering us the opportunity to do a 
movie column is like picking an alcoholic for the job of saloon editor. 
It just ain’t work,” he wrote in his first review. A bit later, he worked 
hard to develop a couple of comic strips. One, titled Gene Fantas, 
Psycho-Investigator, created a character who probed deep into the 
psychology of human motivation to solve crimes and problems. A sec- 
ond, more lighthearted strip with the title of Freddy Frat focused on 
the misadventures of college life. He had no luck in selling them. 8 

Periodically, Hefner tried to muffle these creative urges and rec- 
oncile himself to a staid, middle-class existence. In a long letter dated 
Christmas 1950, he noted that “Millie and I have bought and paid for 
a used car and a new television set. I’m nicely settled in a job writing 
men’s store advertising for Carson Pirie Scott & Co.” But discontent 
kept bubbling up. “He was depressed when he couldn’t find out what 
he was going to do,” Millie explained many years later. “You know, his 
cartoons weren’t selling. . . . And then when he decided to go back 
to school at Northwestern, he thought at least he could teach school. 
But he wasn’t real happy with that idea.” 9 

Hefner achieved one notable creative success, however, that 
charged his emotional batteries and made him a minor celebrity in 
Chicago. In the spring of 1951, he published That Toddlin’ Town: 
A Rowdy Burlesque of Chicago Manners and Morals. He had been 
working on this book of original cartoons offering a satirical, risque 
look at the Chicago social scene for months and was overjoyed when 
it appeared. The front cover featured a sketch of a stripper dancing 
on a table surrounded by smiling men with drinks, while the car- 
toons themselves took a jaunt through the saloons, clubs, and theaters 
of the city, offering commentary on its “manners and morals.” Local 
newspapers took notice. The Chicago Daily Tribune described it as “a 
book of cartoons irreverently satirizing Chicago’s mores . . . with a col- 
lection of drawings that look like the kind Esquire might judge were 
too racy for its picture readers,” while the Chicago Herald-American 
noted that it would “make you laugh if you know the city.” “I hope 
it’ll make me a pot full of money,” Hefner wrote excitedly. “But even 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


53 


if I just break even on the darn thing, it’s a start, the beginning of 
getting a reputation, the all important step in the right direction — the 
direction I most want to go!” 10 

One Michigan Avenue bookstore featured a window display of 
That Toddlin’ Town , while promotion for the book allowed Hefner 
to rub shoulders with Chicago’s entertainment establishment. He 
was interviewed on several radio shows and appeared on local television 
shows such as Hugh Downs’s Luncheon Date and Ernie Simon’s 
Curbstone Cut-Up. The latter featured a zany publicity stunt. As 
Simon prepared to interview Hefner outside a movie theater, a man 
in a gorilla suit came by carrying a beautiful young woman, which 
replicated one of the cartoons in the book. The book’s success thrilled 
the author. It earned a couple of thousand dollars’ profit and a curator 
from the Chicago Historical Society requested some of its original 
cartoons for a special exhibition in its museum. “A nice prestige-type 
thing,” Hefner noted. 11 

The following year, Hefner embarked on another project more 
indicative of the future. In the fall of 1951, he began exploring 
the possibility of going into business for himself. Along with Burt 
Zollo, a copywriter with whom he shared an office at Esquire, he 
developed a prospectus for Pulse: The Picture Magazine of Chicago, 
and began contacting potential investors. They were unable to raise 
money, however, and the project fizzled out. Nevertheless, by late 
1951 the idea for a magazine of his own had clearly begun to perco- 
late in Hefner’s head. 12 

While searching for vocational direction in the early 1950s, Hefner 
also struggled to shape his views of the world into some kind of cohe- 
sive form. In typical adolescent fashion, this bright young man had 
soaked up a mishmash of ideas and theories during his high school 
and college years, ranging from Hollywood movies to Freud, popu- 
lar cartoons to Darwin, Protestant theology to Tarzan. He had come 
out of college with more questions than answers, however, and 
upon entering the adult world he attempted to integrate a jumble of 
images and thoughts into a worldview that would help him find his 
way within the larger society. Increasingly, he drew together several 
elements — Ayn Rand and heroic individualism, popular psychology, 
Alfred Kinsey and sexual liberation, and sentimental images from 
popular culture, particularly the movies — and molded them into a 
whole. They became the building blocks of a social fantasy. 



54 


MR. PLAYBOY 


As part of his flight from the religious values of his parents, Hefner 
had turned to psychology to explain human behavior. He concluded 
from his college studies that deep-seated impulses in the human 
psyche, not sin, explained behavior. “The reason I was majoring in psy- 
chology at Illinois and then in postgraduate work at Northwestern was 
because it all had to do with trying to understand why,” he explained. 
“If I was going to be a writer, I should understand why we behaved 
the way we do.” Hefner developed a broad appreciation of how 
human instincts and impulses, often buried or twisted into strange 
shapes, helped determine behavior. Freud, he recalled, was one of 
his idols. 13 

He also wrestled with psychological and sociological theories that 
portrayed human beings as creatures of larger, powerful social or 
psychic forces. He learned, in his own words, that “man was pretty 
much an expression, a sum total, of his heredity and his environment. 
He could not be blamed for a damned thing. He was just a victim, 
nothing more.” Hefner bridled at this determinism, arguing that if it 
was widely accepted “we would all sit on our asses and do nothing.” 
In a similar vein, he saw McCarthyism and its pressures for politi- 
cal and social conformity as forcing Americans to become “security- 
conscious, committee-conscious, afraid to be different from anybody 
else, afraid to express a different opinion.” He concluded that all 
of these ideas and trends were undermining “the free-enterprise 
system” and “a free democratic society.” In his view, “Eliminate the 
importance of self, drag everyone else down to the common denomi- 
nator, and you are walking right into the society that George Orwell 
warned us about in 1984.” u 

Ayn Rands The Fountainhead became a catalyst for his individu- 
alist inclinations. This novel, with its philosophy of “objectivism,” or 
the notion that morality consists of rational self-interest, resonated 
powerfully with the young man. Its hero, Howard Roark, a deter- 
mined individualist, galvanized Hefners sense of self. “It began to 
come clear to me for the first time that if you took the importance 
of the individual out of society, eliminated his personal importance, 
his integrity, his personal point of view, his right to be different, for 
the sake of what you referred to as the Common Good, it could 
never be a common good — it could only be a common evil,” Hefner 
reflected. He became convinced that individualism lay at the heart 
of a free society while communism, socialism, and fascism offered 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


55 


a suffocating collectivism. In later years, after running an interview 
with Rand in Playboy , Hefner would be shocked to discover that she 
was a Barry Goldwater conservative. But in the early 1950s, Rands 
powerful message of unfettered individualism carried a powerful 
appeal for a young man anxious about McCarthyism and middle- 
class conformity. 15 

Hefners individualist creed, like other aspects of his life, increas- 
ingly came to focus on sexual behavior and standards. The 1948 Kinsey 
Report had inflamed his adolescent resentments about sexual hypoc- 
risy and repression. So when he was required to do a long research 
paper during his brief stint in graduate school at Northwestern in the 
spring of 1950, a natural topic beckoned. Written for a class in social 
pathology and carrying the title “Sex Behavior and the U.S. Law,” the 
seventy-eight-page paper examined the wide array of laws govern- 
ing American sexual behavior. Hefner looked at a variety of sexual 
practices such as intercourse before, during, and outside of marriage; 
intercourse with prostitutes; incest, homosexuality, and the statutes 
and punishments that applied to them. There existed, he concluded, 
not only a gap between American principles and behavior regarding 
sex, but a state of affairs where “much of this hypocrisy has been leg- 
islated into the statutes of the various states.” Common practices such 
as premarital sex, oral sex, masturbation, and “lewd cohabitation” had 
been deemed illegal, and if enforced, in Hefners words, “these laws 
would send close to ninety per cent of our male population to prison.” 
This situation, he concluded, revealed that modern freedoms had 
not been extended to sexuality. Hefner blamed Christianity, which 
had denounced carnal urges and idealized celibacy, as the culprit. 
He offered as a counterpoint the light of reason, which, if allowed to 
shine on sexuality, would lead to the decriminalization of many activi- 
ties that hurt no one. “Mans moral life, as long as it does not harm 
others, is his own business, and should be left to his own discretion,” 
he concluded. 16 

Even more important was the emotional conviction that Hefner 
brought to this project. He threw himself into research and writing, 
in his words, “with the all-consuming passion of the true believer.” It 
provided not only a focus for his intense, Rand-style individualism, 
but a kind of catharsis for coming to terms with his personal pain 
over Millie s infidelity and the perceived repressions of his Protestant 
childhood. With its twin messages of sexual freedom and individual 



56 


MR. PLAYBOY 


liberation, the paper captured central impulses in Hefner’s emerging 
worldview and presaged many of the themes that he would address 
in his later career. The grade he received for the paper — an A for 
research, but only a B+ for the conclusions — reinforced his con- 
viction that sexual repression and hypocrisy had warped American 
sexual attitudes. 17 

Hefners emotional and ideological maturation received an added 
boost from American popular culture. He continued to nurture sen- 
timental dreams of affection, romance, and passion that were rooted 
in popular music and movies. Cinematic images of simple, strong men 
of integrity and principle who persevered through difficult circum- 
stances, as portrayed in movies such as Mr Smith Goes to Washington, 
Meet John Doe, and in various characters played by Humphrey 
Bogart, influenced him. He secured an underground copy of D. 
H. Lawrence’s banned book Lady Chatterley’s Lover and devoured 
Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run, the popular novel about 
Sammy Glick and Hollywood. He also became enthralled with the 
work and life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, reading The Great Gatsby and 
Schulberg’s The Disenchanted, a fictionalized treatment of the sad 
last stages of Fitzgeralds life. “I didn’t want to grow up and be my 
parents. There had to be something more,” he explained. “And that 
something more was hinted at somehow in the dreams and the movies 
and the books I read.” 18 

Thus by the early 1950s Hefner had forged an individualist, libera- 
tionist mind-set that was committed to unfettered expression, sexual 
freedom, and personal autonomy. He may not have known exactly 
where he was going, but he knew the ideas that were going to take 
him there. At the same time, his search for vocation and direction 
in young adulthood was far more than an intellectual exercise. It lay 
intertwined with his personal life, particularly an unsatisfying mar- 
riage and a growing sexual restlessness. 


II 


Hugh and Millie Hefner began their married life in 1949 in awkward 
circumstances. Forced to live with his parents because of economic 
pressures, they converted the largest bedroom in the house into a 
small apartment. The younger Hefners’ appreciation, combined 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


57 


with the elder Hefners’ emotional restraint, made for a congenial 
household. The only point of contention concerned Hugh and Millie’s 
enthusiastic lovemaking, which occasionally could be heard by both 
his parents and their longtime neighbors. An embarrassed Grace took 
her son aside one day and asked for more restraint, or at least less 
noise. Such minor problems aside, the youthful couple settled in as 
Hugh pursued various jobs and art projects and Millie worked at the 
Mars candy factory. Hefner seemed content, noting on Christmas 
1950 that “I find myself more in love with Millie than I was on our 
wedding day.” 19 

Change came in the early spring of 1952, when Millie discovered 
she was pregnant. Within a few weeks the young couple had found a 
five-room apartment at 6052 South Harper on Chicago’s South Side, 
and throughout the summer they threw themselves into a redecorating 
project. For Hugh, it was an opportunity to realize a fantasy — living 
the life of a hip, young urban couple. Seeking to create a Greenwich 
Village-style environment, Hefner designed a dark gray living room 
accented with white, yellow, and black draperies, Picasso prints, and 
spare, modernist furniture, including an orange Knoll womb chair. 
The bright dining room had three walls painted rust orange and one 
covered in Philippine grass paper. A long hallway featured some of 
Hefner’s cartoons along with a playful touch — framed his-and-her 
chest X-rays. The bedroom had yellow walls and dark green bamboo 
shades, while the baby’s bedroom was decorated with Pogo cartoons. 
The Chicago Daily News ran a brief picture story on the apartment 
as Hefner acknowledged he was trying to “create a sort of bohemian 
life that I imagined was going on out there that I wasn’t a part of.” 20 

Yet Hefner’s carefully cultivated image was belied by the reality 
beneath. In fact, Hugh and Millie had begun to drift apart. Both 
had harbored doubts about the relationship, but they hoped that the 
marriage bond would overcome them. Like many young couples in 
1950s America, they had felt pressure to get married and have chil- 
dren because, in Hefner’s words, “it was simply the thing that you 
did.” But they were ill-suited to one another, and the frustrations 
grew stronger, rather than weaker, over time. 21 

Disappointment had surfaced early on. The wedding ceremony 
had been pleasant, but the honeymoon at a lakeside lodge in 
Wisconsin fell victim to extremely hot weather and boredom. 
Their sexual relationship had cooled gradually, and when a tight 



58 


MR. PLAYBOY 


emotional connection failed to develop, they settled into a calm but 
dispassionate relationship. Friction flared only when they played as 
bridge partners and inevitably bickered. Much like Grace and Glenn 
Hefner, they coexisted with little fighting but little affection either. 
A friend observed, “I saw them more as good friends than as lovers 
because I never saw them display any affection, hugging or kissing 
or touching.” 22 

Gradually, a quiet discontent grew as each partner felt a lack of ful- 
fillment. “It was a charade. We were playing roles,” Millie admitted 
later. Hugh added, “I have always had the capacity to find the bright 
side of almost anything. I don’t think I was ever really happy in the 
marriage, but I think that I managed to convince myself that I was.” 
The stalled union, along with the stalled career, seemed to signal the 
death of his youthful dreams. In looking back at the early years of his 
marriage to Millie, he later described the period as “one in which 
I was really lost.” 23 

For Hefner, two issues grew particularly frustrating. First, he 
claimed that Millie had little interest in sex. “He told me Millie was 
unresponsive in bed and that he had tried everything he knew to 
stimulate their sex life, but nothing succeeded,” Eldon Sellers, a close 
friend, reported. Second, Hefner was emotionally unprepared to be a 
parent. He had agreed to a family because of social pressures to have 
children, and the arrival of daughter Christie on November 8, 1952, 
had delighted him. But at heart, Hefner was no family man and, in 
his words, “all this togetherness seemed meaningless. I went t hrough 
the motions, but my heart wasn’t in it.” The responsibilities of father- 
hood had little appeal and the arrival of a second child, David, in 1955 
only exacerbated the situation. Millie had wanted another baby and 
Hugh was reluctant, so she arranged the biological schedule without 
consulting him. “The second child was planned, but I wasn’t in on the 
plan,” he noted ruefully. 24 

In the meantime, the troubled marriage faced growing pressure 
from Hugh’s increasingly active sexual imagination. His strong erotic 
drive had become evident on the afternoon of their wedding when, 
on a very hot day at Millie’s parents’ house with relatives scattered 
about, he wanted to have sex in her bedroom. She refused. In subse- 
quent years, Hefner’s fascination with sexual themes and issues grew 
stronger. His snapshots of the new apartment included a from-the- 
back, waist-up picture of Millie as she stood in the shower. A 1952 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


59 


letter to posterity in his autobiography was decorated with miniature 
photographs of scantily clad and nude women. Hefner eagerly col- 
lected sexual tidbits from the news, noting in a letter the following 
year, “Sex made a couple of big headlines this month as margarine 
heir Minot Jelke was convicted as a panderer for $50 to $200 a date 
call-girls — and Christine Jorgensen returned to the U.S. after a series 
of famous operations that turned her from a man into a woman.” As 
Eldon Sellers put it, “he was obsessed with sex.” 25 

Hefners preoccupation did not remain ethereal. He became a 
connoisseur of sexual experimentation in a group of young married 
friends. He hosted parties at the Hefner apartment featuring stag 
films, which titillated the group, and kept up a running commentary 
of one-liners to remove any embarrassment. He organized risque 
games such as strip poker and strip charades where, while consuming 
hefty amounts of alcohol to remove inhibitions, husbands and wives 
would end up stripping down to their underwear. These boisterous 
parties, according to Sellers, produced a bunch of half-naked people 
running around laughing and cavorting. “Nothing sexual happened 
but it was titillating,” he said. 26 

Hefner also went further. One night after he and Millie watched 
a stag movie with Janie and Eldon Sellers, he suggested that the four 
of them make love on the same bed, each husband to his own wife. 
They did so and, in Sellers’s words, “It was different and exciting.” 
According to Millie, Hugh began to hint at switching partners, appar- 
ently suggesting it with the Sellerses, although the swap never mate- 
rialized. But it did happen with his brother, Keith, and his wife, Rae, 
one evening at the apartment. While Millie ultimately backed out of 
having sex with Keith, Hugh slept with his sister-in-law. 27 

Soon Hefner became even bolder. After procuring the necessary 
equipment, he made his own stag film. Titled “After the Masquerade,” 
it was shot at a friend’s apartment where Hefner and a female 
acquaintance had sex while wearing masks to protect their identity. 
On another occasion, Hefner shared a partner with Eldon Sellers, 
whose own sexual experimentation also was accelerating rapidly. 
When he took a young woman home to make love, she said she 
wouldn’t mind a friend, “so I called Hef and he came right over.” 
Hefner’s thirst for sexual experience became so strong that he even 
had a one-time homosexual encounter. One evening in downtown 
Chicago he was propositioned and, according to Sellers, he “thought 



60 


MR. PLAYBOY 


what the hell. Found it an interesting experience. As far as I know, 
the guy just gave him a blow job .” 28 

Hefners blossoming sense of sexual liberation, however, did not 
extend to Millie. When Eldon Sellers divorced his wife, his friendship 
with the Hefners intensified and he would drop by to visit, sometimes 
when Hugh was not home . Hefner bridled. “He told me about a friend 
of his who lost his wife to his best friend,” Sellers recalled. Hefner’s 
fears were well grounded, because Sellers had become attracted to 
Millie. “I thought she was very sexy and once when we played a kiss- 
ing game [at a party], she had kissed me kind of passionately, a French 
kiss,” he confessed . 29 

Amid these sexual shenanigans, however, Hefner maintained a 
fascinating posture. While organizing, staging, even choreographing 
the revelries, and contributing much wit and good cheer, he stayed 
a step removed. He enjoyed participating in new sexual adventures, 
but never abandoned himself to them. As Sellers observed, he never 
got drunk at the couples’ parties but carefully maintained his self- 
control. Millie agreed, noting that her husband “stages things. But 
he’s not part of it.” She believed that Hefner’s reserve, in part, pro- 
tected him from feeling vulnerable. But Millie also concluded that 
her husband, at a deeper level, somehow created an alter ego who 
could act out his deepest desires while his real self remained as an 
observer. “I kept thinking it’s like he’s two people. He’s this fantasy 
character. He’s this viewer of life,” she explained. “It’s this other per- 
son that is doing all the fantasy things that he would like to be able to 
do but he can’t do.” In a sense, Hefner’s creation of a social fantasy 
contained a fantasy of himself . 30 

Not surprisingly, Hefner’s restless sexuality finally culminated 
in a full-blown affair. While working at Publisher’s Development 
Corporation, he started an affair with a nurse that lasted for about 
a year. She was an attractive, earthy woman whose vigorous erotic 
appetite contrasted with Millie. “She managed to give me back my 
sexual self-respect,” Hefner said. “She was attracted to me in a way 
I didn’t feel that Millie was.” He justified the illicit relationship as 
not being unfaithful, but merely compensating for Millie’s lack of 
sexual interest. Moreover, the affair demonstrated Hefner’s growing 
discontent with America’s repressive code of sexual conduct. “I don’t 
remember having any guilt,” he said later. “I just felt that I was, in 
effect, breaking the rules that I’d been raised with .” 31 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


61 


Thus the wheel-spinning lack of momentum in Hefners career 
was matched by discontent and sexual adventurism in his personal 
life. His various forays — the affair, the bohemian apartment, the 
stag films, the risque parties — expressed a common desire to jet- 
tison the social conventions of postwar America. “It was all part of 
the same thing. It was somehow trying to get out of that life,” he 
noted. “Somehow to just not keep marching in lockstep to the abyss.” 
Disparaging American society as a hive of Father Knows Best confor- 
mity, he yearned for liberation. But in both his career and his private 
life, the fog of frustration refused to lift. In Hefners words, “I was 
really not a happy guy, either professionally or personally, at that point 
in my life.” 32 


Ill 

Hefners discontent, ironically, came to a head in a moment of 
great joy. In December 1952, he and Jim Brophy wrote and directed 
the Revue of Stars , a fund-raising variety show, for the Steinmetz 
High School Alumni Association. The old school chums served as 
masters of ceremonies and performed several song and comedy num- 
bers, including a hilarious “Walking My Baby Back Home,” where 
Hefner serenaded Brophy, who was dressed as a woman. The crowd 
loved the show, and Hefner, showered with applause and laughter, 
was ecstatic. As he noted in his cartoon autobiography, “Who says you 
can’t turn back the clock? For the past two hours we’ve been plunked 
right back in the middle of 1943!” The alumni show “reinspired my 
faith in myself. It reminded me of my high school days when I truly 
believed I could do anything.” 33 

But this moment of euphoria quickly turned to ashes. As the 
glow of success faded, the experience of the show only highlighted 
the angst that had enveloped the rest of his life. He grew acutely 
despondent about his stalled career and his unhappy marriage, and 
the feelings almost overwhelmed him a few days later. Standing on 
a bridge over the Chicago River in the middle of a typically frigid 
winter, he looked out over the water and felt a desperate desire to 
recapture those warm feelings of high school life when he had been 
the esteemed leader of a gang, romance was in the air, and everything 
seemed possible. “I stood on the bridge . . . and I felt as if my life 



62 


MR. PLAYBOY 


was over. I had put away all my dreams from childhood and I was 
miserable.” But misery inspired decision as Hefner thought to him- 
self, “I’ve gotta do something.” 34 

Within weeks he moved to start his own magazine. He had 
toyed with the idea earlier, but now he threw himself into a project 
that would express all of his interests, ideas, and passions. Its center- 
piece would be the subject that increasingly captured his imagination: 
sex. “I just decided to do it all on my own. Nobody else, just do it,” he 
said. He knew there was a market for photographs of nude women 
from his experience with Publishers Development Corporation, 
whose low-quality magazines still appealed. Esquire, he believed, had 
deteriorated by removing many of its pinups and cartoons. “I thought 
I could really actually put together a good magazine. I felt with abso- 
lute certainty that I knew exactly what I was doing.” 35 

Hefner began talking up the idea with close friends. He and 
Eldon Sellers had taken to playing ping-pong in the basement of his 
apartment building, and amid the games Hefner began discussing 
his plans for a magazine. “He had it all figured out — and the way 
he explained it, I got very excited and wanted to be a part of it,” 
Sellers explained. Hefner also contacted Burt Zollo, his accomplice 
from Esquire, who was now working for a public relations firm, and 
laid out his plan: 

I’d like to produce an entertainment magazine for the city-bred 
guy — breezy, sophisticated. The girly features would guarantee 
the initial sale — but the magazine would have quality, too. . . . 
Give the reader reprint stories by big name writers, top art by 
local artists, cartoons, humor, maybe some pages in full color 
to really give it a classy look. . . . Later, with some money in the 
bank, well begin increasing the quality, reducing the girlie fea- 
tures, going after advertising, and really making it an Esquire- 
type magazine. 36 

In the spring of 1953, Hefner took concrete steps to bring his 
fantasy to life. He spent his evenings at a card table in the living 
room of his South Side apartment, laboring into the early morning 
hours as he blocked out the elements of the magazine he decided to 
call Stag Party. He formed HMH Publishing Company and enlisted 
Eldon Sellers to raise funds. Meanwhile, he contacted distributors 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


63 


all over the country, whom he had come to know from his days with 
Publishers Development Corporation, and solicited advance orders 
for the new magazine. His letter announced “a deal that should make 
some money for both of us. stag party — a brand new magazine 
for men — will be out this fall.” Every issue of the magazine, he prom- 
ised, “will have a beautiful, full page, male-pleasing nude study — in 
full, natural color! Now you know what I mean when I say this is going 
to be one of the best sellers you’ve ever handled.” 37 

Thrilled with his new endeavor, Hefner threw himself into the 
work. He sat for long hours at the card table pounding out copy for 
the magazine, combing through available articles and cartoons, and 
sorting the orders from wholesalers that were arriving steadily. “He 
didn’t really sleep much because he was working practically all night,” 
Millie reported. Hefner’s enthusiasm became contagious. Burt Zollo, 
who had expressed reservations initially, was won over and described 
Hefner as “a highly creative guy who was nevertheless highly realistic. 
He would be successful.” 38 

Much effort went into raising money with family and friends. 
A wealthy girlfriend of Sellers’s invested $2,000 [and] Hefner bor- 
rowed $200 from a local bank and hocked his furniture with a loan 
company for $600 more. Zollo invested $300, while Keith Hefner 
contributed $1,000 to his brother’s venture. Grace Hefner, even 
though she had reservations about the magazine, invested another 
$1,000. A grateful Hugh wrote to his mother, “Because of the spon- 
taneity of it and because it was made with the knowledge that much 
of the magazine, like my book, will not be material that you fully, 
personally approve of, this is just about the nicest thing you have ever 
done for me.” Eventually, Hefner gathered just over $8,000 to put out 
the first issue of the magazine. 39 

Meanwhile, enough orders had come in from distributors for 
Hefner to make an arrangement with a printer he knew in New 
Bochelle, Illinois. With a new press and some open time, the man 
agreed to print Stag Party on credit with half down in thirty days and 
the other half in sixty days. Hefner also made an important decision to 
hire an art director to handle the visual side of his new magazine. He 
contacted a Chicago graphic artist named Art Paul about illustrating 
a story, but was so taken by the illustrations on display that he pressed 
him to assume a larger role. Hefner had arrived at the artist’s studio 
with a growth of beard, wrinkled clothes, and a harried look, but 



64 


MR. PLAYBOY 


enthusiasm for the new magazine bubbled out of him. “I thought, 
for Gods sake, hes either got to be an exceptional person, or he’s got 
to be crazy,” Paul recalled. But the artist agreed to work part-time 
on the magazine’s visuals, and Hefner paid part of his fee in cash and 
part in stock from the new company. 40 

Hefner made his most crucial move, however, when he purchased 
the rights to a nude photograph of perhaps the hottest, sexiest young 
actress in Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe had rocketed to movie star- 
dom in 1952 on the basis of the movies The Asphalt Jungle, All About 
Eve, and Niagara. In the subsequent flurry of publicity, it came to 
light that a Los Angeles photographer had shot several nude photos 
of her in 1949 for use in a calendar. Monroe joked that during the 
shoot she had “nothing on but the radio.” Hefner read that the John 
Baumgarth Calendar Company of Chicago now owned the rights to 
one of the photos, but was reluctant to send its calendar through 
the mail because of the Post Office taboo on nudity. Knowing that 
he needed a gimmick to sell the first issue of his magazine, Hefner 
quickly drove to the company. He persuaded John Baumgarth to sell 
him the rights to the photos, which featured the actress sitting seduc- 
tively against a red velvet backdrop. 41 

As the magazine moved nearer to publication, however, an unex- 
pected crisis loomed. In September 1953 Hefner received a letter from 
a law firm representing Stag magazine. This publication considered 
Stag Party to be an infringement on its title and threatened to sue. 
Hefner convened a frantic meeting with Millie and Eldon Sellers and 
they began tossing around other tides: Top Hat, Bachelor, Gentleman, 
Sir, Satyrs, Pan. But none seemed suitable, and Sellers finally offered 
Playboy. Millie thought it sounded outdated and made people think of 
the 1920s. But Hugh, who associated the Boaring Twenties with “high 
living, parties, wine, women, and song — the things we want the maga- 
zine to mean,” loved the name and adopted it immediately. A logo had 
already been completed by the cartoonist Arv Miller — a stag bedecked 
in smoking jacket, standing against a fireplace with a cigarette holder 
and martini glass — and it required a quick substitution of a rabbit 
head. A bit later, Art Paul would create the famous rabbit head silhou- 
ette logo with its “elegant, on-the-town look.” 42 

In November 1953, everything was set to launch the first issue of 
Playboy. Advance orders for seventy thousand copies had rolled in 
over the past several months, but no one knew if the magazine would 



THE TIE THAT BINDS 


65 


really sell. The first issue rolled off the presses without a publication 
date because its youthful editor and publisher, while convinced he 
had an attractive product, remained uncertain whether sales would 
support a second issue. Hugh Hefner had gambled everything on the 
venture, both materially and emotionally, and now he could only wait 
and see how it would play out. 




PART II 


ASCENT 




4 


How to Win Friends 
and Titillate People 


I n the first week of November 1953, a nervous Hugh Hefner walked 
I the streets of downtown Chicago, haunting the newsstands for a 
I glimpse of his new magazine. The first issue of Playboy had just 
appeared, and like an anxious father he fretted about the status of 
his offspring. A few weeks earlier Hefner had negotiated a good deal 
with a distributor, Empire News, based on advance orders for the 
magazine. Then in mid-October he had driven the seventy-five miles 
to Rochelle Printing in his beat-up 1941 Chevy, along with Eldon 
Sellers and Art Paul, and spent several hours copyreading the page 
proofs. When the presses delivered the final product, and it was cov- 
ered and bound, Hefner felt a surge of emotion. He described it as 
“one of the great moments of my life.” 1 

Now Hefner watched as browsers picked up a newsstand copy of 
Playboy, curiously looking at the table of contents before sneaking a 
peek at the Marilyn Monroe pictorial. He thrilled when a customer 


69 



70 


MR. PLAYBOY 


bought a copy, and his heart sank when they set it down and moved 
on. When the newsstand proprietors were not looking, Hefner even 
walked over and moved Playboy to a more prominent position in the 
display. Over a period of several days, he brooded that if his magazine 
did not sell, the prospect of shattered dreams and bankruptcy loomed 
in the near future. 2 

Hefner need not have worried. Within a short time, landslide 
sales made the new product a winner. Experts had predicted sales 
of about 60 percent of copies published, a respectable result. But 
Playboy sold nearly 80 percent, about fifty-four thousand copies — an 
astounding figure for a new publication that had been launched on 
a minuscule budget with little publicity or advertising. The second 
issue, which already had been blocked out when the first appeared, 
hit the newsstands in early December, and a more confident Hefner 
now included his name on the masthead. The second issue outsold 
the first by about two thousand copies. 3 

Even Hefner seemed a bit taken back by the powerful response to 
Playboy. The magazine appeared to strike a nerve almost immediately 
as not only readers, but American culture, or at least much of its male 
portion, seemed ready for it. The magazine’s appeal radiated from its 
very first issue. Daring, provocative, even naughty, but not dangerous 
or subversive, Playboy expressed many of the mainstream values of 
postwar America while giving them an invigorating new form. Aimed 
at men who were trying to navigate the unfamiliar waters of a pros- 
perous new social and economic milieu, the magazine offered an 
exciting vision of the good life for a society that, without totally being 
aware of the fact, was yearning to lead it. Playboy began bringing a 
submerged collective social fantasy to the surface. 


I 

While proud of his new publication, Hefner knew that it was far 
from what he envisioned in terms of quality and style . The first Playboy 
was lively and vibrant, crudely composed and not very sophisticated- 
looking. The editor joked that its cobbled-together format consisted 
of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something 
blue.” Behind the rough edges, however, lay all of the basic compo- 
nents that the magazine would refine and expand upon in the future. 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 71 


As Art Paul observed, the inaugural issue was “a sketchbook for what 
the magazine was really going to be.” 4 

A smiling, waving Marilyn Monroe sat on the cover along with a 
promise that the reader would find within “For the First Time, in any 
Magazine, Full Color,” the famous nude photo of the actress. Readers 
then encountered a jaunty introduction that announced a new kind 
of magazine for a new kind of male reader: 

If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, playboy is 
meant for you. If you like your entertainment served up with 
humor, sophistication and spice, PLAYBOY will become a very 
special favorite. 

We want to make clear from the very start, we aren’t a “family 
magazine.” If you’re somebody’s sister, wife, or mother-in-law 
and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in 
your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion. . . . 

Most of today’s “magazines for men” spend all their time 
out-of-doors — thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing 
about in fast flowing streams. Well be out there too, occasion- 
ally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance — we plan on 
spending most of our time inside. 

We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and 
an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the 
phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet 
discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex. . . . 

Affairs of state will be out of our province. We don’t expect 
to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths. If 
we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and 
a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age, well 
feel we’ve justified our existence. 5 

There it was in a nutshell — the promise of sophisticated amuse- 
ment for young, urban males who sought relief from the stresses and 
strains of workaday life, and who felt more comfortable (or, perhaps 
more accurately, wanted to feel more comfortable) pursuing modem 
art, films, and foreign cuisines rather than wily trout, smoky camp- 
fires, and recalcitrant do-it-yourself projects. The magazine would 
be, in Hefner’s memorable phrase, “a pleasure-primer styled to the 
masculine taste.” 6 



72 


MR. PLAYBOY 


A quick scan of the first issue’s contents elaborated the nature of 
the young Chicagoans magazine. Sexual titillation pervaded. One 
article explained how to enliven a boring party with a provocative 
game, “strip quiz,” while another depicted nude swimming festivities 
in California. A selection from the Decameron provided “a humorous 
tale of adultery.” Ribald themes dominated the many cartoons — one 
showed a shapely young woman about to write in her diary, asking 
a friend, “What is the past tense of virgin?” — as well as “Playboys 
Party Jokes.” Other articles explored “The Return of the All-Purpose 
Rack,” “The Dorsey Rrothers,” and “Desk Design for the Modern 
Office.” “The Mens Shop” displayed the latest in consumer amenities 
for young men, while “Matanzas Love Affair” explained the delights 
of Cuban food and drink. Reprints of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle 
and Ambrose Rierce offered mystery and adventure. “Miss Gold- 
digger of 1953” denounced greedy women who manipulated the legal 
system for alimony. 

The centerpiece of Playboy s first issue, however, was its 
“Sweetheart of the Month.” As promised on the cover, it showcased 
the sensual attractions of Marilyn Monroe. “She’s as famous as Dwight 
Eisenhower and Dick Tracy, and she and Dr. Kinsey have monopo- 
lized sex this year,” said the text. “She is natural sex personified. It is 
there in every look and movement. That’s what makes her the most 
natural choice in the world for our very first Playboy Sweetheart 
Several photos of Monroe, including a nude shot of her posed against 
red velvet, provided proof for the assertion. The magazine assured 
readers, “Well be running a beautiful, full color unpinned pin-up in 
each new issue of playboy .” 7 

What drew men to this potpourri of offerings? The attractive 
bundling of sexual images, of course, highlighted by the Monroe 
pictorial, initially hooked a male audience whose previous encoun- 
ters with erotic material likely consisted of grimy, grainy photos in 
underground venues. Rut Playboy ’ s appeal was rooted more deeply 
in the broad social and cultural milieu of postwar America. 

Middle-class life in the 1950s had emerged from the cauldron of 
the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, 
traumatic events that had devastated the economic institutions of the 
country in the first case, and dislocated it socially and psychologi- 
cally in the second. Memories of bankruptcies and lost mortgages, 
of battlefield scars and aching separations, lingered painfully in 
the American psyche. Millions of ordinaiy citizens had entered the 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 73 


postwar period yearning to replace uncertainty with security, volatility 
with stability, need with possession. The United States’ victorious 
position in the world — what pundits increasingly described as “The 
American Century” — provided the means to do so. 

Coming out of World War II as an economic colossus, the United 
States had changed direction from a military to a consumer agenda. 
By the 1950s, prosperity had become the hallmark of American 
life. Middle-class citizens enjoyed an economy of abundance that 
brought an unprecedented flow of goods. Supported by the mortgage 
provision of the GI Bill, avast new army of homeowners prompted a 
boom in housing construction that produced swelling suburbs such as 
Levittown, Long Island, that built and sold seventeen thousand homes 
beginning in 1949. The automobile industry boomed as Detroit com- 
panies, led by General Motors, produced ever larger, more stylish, 
and more powerful cars for average -income buyers. High employ- 
ment and steady growth in income encouraged leisure activity with 
a resulting boom in vacation travel and television sales. The flood 
of consumer products to the middle class led Fortune magazine to 
proclaim in 1956, “Never has a whole people spent so much money 
on so many things in such an easy way as Americans are doing today.” 
The historian David Potter, in a much-discussed book titled People 
of Plenty (1954), concluded that material abundance, the key factor 
in American development over two centuries, had reached an apex 
in the postwar era. In a special 1959 double issue titled “The Good 
Life,” Life magazine marveled that in modern America, “suddenly 
what used to be the small leisured classes became the big leisured 
masses.” 8 

The American family emerged at the center of this new consumer 
economy. Riding the crest of the ballyhooed “baby boom” of the late 
1940s and early 1950s, it achieved newfound prominence in the 
postwar period. A new cultural code of family togetherness idealized 
life in suburban ranch houses, cruising about in station wagons, and 
gathering in family rooms to watch television shows such as Father 
Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Americans embraced the prom- 
ise of a new kind of family experience that, in the words of one histo- 
rian, “would fulfill virtually all its members’ personal needs through 
an energized and expressive personal life.” 9 

This environment of material abundance and family together- 
ness forced a reshaping of the basic American tenet of individualism. 
Earlier periods had stressed a rugged personal code where the citizen 



74 


MR. PLAYBOY 


had marshaled hard work, determination, and self-control to blaze 
his own path to success. But in the heady days of the postwar era, a 
new socioeconomic atmosphere demanded revisions. An economy 
increasingly dominated by large corporations made bureaucracy, not 
entrepreneurship, the new field of play. Here a “personality” com- 
posed of attractive images and compelling personal skills — not an 
old-fashioned “character” of rigid moral values — would foster “team- 
work” and ascent up the corporate ladder. New avatars of success, 
such as the clergyman- therapist Norman Vincent Peale, in his wildly 
popular The Power of Positive Thinking , urged readers to call upon a 
“Higher Power” to gain confidence and strengthen mental health as 
the basis for securing happiness and prosperity. 10 

The pressures of the Cold War molded these elements of abun- 
dance, family, and teamwork into a compelling American Way of Life. 
Economically, government defense contracts underwrote a significant 
portion of 1950s prosperity. Rhetorically, the United States trum- 
peted a creed of anticommunism that juxtaposed American bounty 
and family, bureaucratic efficiency and vibrant personality against 
drab Stalinist collectivism. Pressures for conformity emerging from 
corporate bureaucracies, national advertising campaigns, and the 
suburban ethos gained additional power from an anticommunist ide- 
ology that demanded solidarity against the Red Menace. In 1959, 
Life ran a lighthearted story — complete with several photos — about 
newlyweds who spent their weeklong honeymoon in a bomb shelter, 
surrounded by a cornucopia of consumer amenities. 11 

But as the 1950s unfolded, challenges arose to this American Way 
of Life that showed widening cracks in its imposing edifice. Much of 
it was covert. By mid-decade, Elvis Presley and rock V roll music 
were shaking middle-class restraint with depth charges of sexuality 
and emotional rebellion. The Beats, through novelists such as Jack 
Kerouac and poets such as Allen Ginsberg, bitterly criticized middle- 
class materialism and created a bohemian counterculture devoted to 
unfettered personal expression. Critics attacked the conformity and 
unimaginative quality of bourgeois America in works such as William 
H. Whytes The Organization Man (1956), David Riesmans The 
Lonely Crowd (1950), and Dwight Macdonalds “A Theory of Mass 
Culture” (1957). Macdonalds words typified the critique: “There is 
slowly emerging a tepid, flaccid middlebrow culture that threatens 
to engulf everything in its spreading ooze.” 12 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 75 


In the heart of the Eisenhower era, it was the genius of Playboy 
and its editor to articulate an approach that tapped both mainstream 
aspirations and marginal unhappiness. While rebellious, Hefners 
magazine did not challenge the basic tenets of postwar American life. 
Instead, it channeled the restlessness of ambitious, irreverent, often 
accomplished young men toward eliminating its stodgier features and 
loosening its most restrictive demands. It expressed a dissent based on 
lifestyle. Playboy, and its readers, sought to make hard play the equal 
of hard work in the American creed. They sought to remove barriers 
to pleasure in order to enjoy the full bounty of the new American 
wealth. Through this shared fantasy of self-gratification, they aimed to 
enhance the American dream of an abundant life, not overthrow it. 

Thus Playboy, while scandalizing old-fashioned defenders of reli- 
gion and morality, appealed to growing numbers of people intoxi- 
cated with abundance and eager to throw off restraints. Hefner 
had a partial awareness of his magazines cultural role. “I wanted to 
create a breezy, class entertainment magazine for the city-bred guy,” 
he explained in early 1954. At the same time, he believed that his 
desires were shared by others. “The whole focus of the magazine was 
the notion of living unmarried in a city with your own apartment, with 
a nice car, with good food and drink, where you’d actually prepare 
something for a romantic dinner. It was all in the first issue.” Indeed, 
this cultural agenda for the good life proved to be a bond between 
Hefners magazine and its readers. 13 


II 

Looking back from a vantage point many years later, Hugh Hefner 
saw his magazine standing at the ramparts battling against 1950s 
conformity and repression. “Before Playboy, the only moral, proper 
way for a middle-class person to live their life was to get married, 
settle down, have babies and live happily every after, whatever that 
meant,” he explained. “We dared to suggest that there were other 
ways of living your life.” He believed that a pernicious alliance of reli- 
gion and politics had created a censorious public morality and a rigid 
creed of family virtue in the postwar period. He also blamed Red- 
hunting McCarthyism for making a mockery of World War II’s demo- 
cratic aims and turning anticommunism into a recipe for political 



76 


MR. PLAYBOY 


and social repression. Playboy, Hefner concluded, struck a blow for 
cultural freedom by promoting a freer expression of eroticism. “We 
knew that we were obviously ringing some kind of a revolutionary bell 
by simply running nude pictures in the magazine,” he noted. 14 

But Playboy played a more complex, even ambiguous role, as it 
went out to the American public in the mid-1950s. Its dissenting 
impulses, while real, were hardly revolutionary. In many ways, per- 
haps even more powerfully, it affirmed postwar American values. 
Seeking to loosen the system from within rather than assault it from 
without, Hefner served as an agent of regeneration for the American 
Way of Life. “Playboy is dedicated to the enjoyment of ‘the good life’ 
that is every American’s heritage, if he’s willing to display a little of 
the initiative and derring-do that made the country great in the first 
place, instead of settling for job security, conformity, togetherness, 
anonymity, and slow death,” he told Cold War America. “And just 
incidentally, while trying to climb that ladder of success through cre- 
ativity, thought, initiative, and daring to be different, Americans sup- 
ply the only chance this country has of moving back into a position of 
world leadership.” In various ways, Playboy consistently articulated 
a goal of individual success and social prosperity. 15 

The magazine urged its readers to enjoy life by embracing leisure, 
entertainment, and material comforts. Playboy encouraged people 
to partake of exciting new opportunities instead of delaying gratifica- 
tion. “Our readers believe in The Good Life, and so do we,” it told 
aspiring authors in 1954. “Hence, free-lancers will make us happy by 
submitting material that stresses wine, women and song rather than 
rod, reel, and bait-bucket.” Editorial asides in the magazine assured 
readers that “The Good Life” consisted of “good food and drink, 
first-rate reading matter, and a compliable young person of feminine 
gender.” 16 

Playboy repeatedly connected its vision of pleasure pursuits to 
upward mobility in 1950s America. On its first anniversary, it reported 
that “the average playboy reader has a little better education, posi- 
tion, and income than his non-PLAYBOY-reading brother.” The follow- 
ing year, the magazine ran a piece in Advertising Age that quoted a 
composite Playboy reader: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a hard-working 
guy and I’m well on my way to the top in business. But I like to have 
fun. I like nice clothes, great food and drink, women. No, I’m only 
29. I’m college educated, I earn a good living and I expect to earn a 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 77 


good deal more. I have faith in myself and the future. I’m not worried 
about tomorrow. I’m living now.” 17 

A 1955 survey of Playboy readers uncovered statistical evidence sup- 
porting its appeal to the youthful, ambitious, and affluent. Conducted 
by the market research company of Gould, Gleiss, and Benn, Inc., it 
reported that the great majority of readers were between the ages of 
twenty and thirty-four, over 70 percent had attended college, almost 
63 percent were business and professional men or students studying 
to enter those fields, 88 percent owned automobiles, and nearly all 
took regular vacations. Most pursued hobbies such as photography, 
reading, or music, smoked a wide variety of tobacco products, and 
consumed various brands of hard liquor and beer. Its average reader, 
the magazine concluded, was “a young man-about-town who enjoys 
good, gracious living.” 18 

Playboy’s argument that social success and a hunger for the good 
life went hand in hand found its clearest expression, however, in a 
1956 ad campaign that asked, “What is a Playboy?” 

Is he simply a wastrel, a ne’er-do-well, a fashionable bum? Far 
from it: he can be a sharp-minded young business executive, a 
worker in the arts, a university professor, an architect or engi- 
neer. He can be many things, providing he possesses a certain 
point of view. He must see life not as a vale of tears, but as a 
happy time; he must take joy in his work, without regarding 
it as the end and all of living; he must be an alert man, an 
aware man, a man of taste, a man sensitive to pleasure, a man 
who — without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or the 
dilettante — can live life to the hilt. 

The Playboy reader, in other words, was someone who was deter- 
mined both to find economic success and enjoy its material and 
emotional fruits. 19 But Hefner also grasped the more subtle point 
that Playboy embodied social fantasy as much as reality. While his 
magazine affirmed the appetites of well-connected stock traders, 
shrewd young lawyers, and au courant architects, it also provided a 
kind of wish fulfillment for weary salesmen or aspiring young middle 
managers who desperately wanted to believe they were on the fast 
track. As Hefner admitted in a 1955 interview, Playboy, in a sense, was 
“an escapist magazine” projecting “the kind of life part of the reader 



78 


MR. PLAYBOY 


would like to live.” It offered him “an imaginary escape into the world 
of wine, women and song,” he said. “Then the other part of him says 
he has to go back to his family responsibilities and his work.” 20 
Central to Playboy’s fantasy of the good life, of course, was a loos- 
ening of traditional restrictions on sexuality. Early issues of the maga- 
zine suggested that sex was a healthy, natural human impulse, not a 
dirty endeavor to be repressed or a sacred one to be elevated. An array 
of erotic photographs, pictorials, cartoons, jokes, and articles drove 
home the message. “Nudity and the Foreign Film,” for instance, with 
text and photographs, contrasted American and European movies in 
terms of depicting nudity. “The movie censors of America have con- 
sidered the human body and concluded that it is immoral,” the maga- 
zine declared. But no one was justified in “forcing its opinions, tastes, 
and attitudes on the rest of us. We make a habit of thumbing our noses 
at censors, because we feel they have no place in a democracy.” 21 
Hefner defended Playboy’s sexual thrust. “Its one of the things 
our guy is interested in, and there’s no reason for us to apologize for 
it,” he told an interviewer in 1955. He scorned the notion that his 
magazine’s sexuality might corrupt the nation’s youth. The idea that 
one must bring “our literature and entertainment down to the level 
of twelve-year-olds is incredible,” he argued. Healthy sex was part of 
the good life, Hefner insisted, and Playboy’s expression of that senti- 
ment “reached the young city man in a way that makes him feel a real 
identification with the magazine.” 22 

The first issues of Playboy also called for male liberation from the 
demands of marriage and family life. Preaching the gospel of bach- 
elorhood, the magazine offered articles such as “Miss Gold-digger of 
1953,” which warned that greedy women, backed by the courts, were 
using divorce settlements to stick an “ex-spouse for a healthy chunk of 
his earnings from that day forward, for the rest of his unnatural life.” 
When an irate woman sent a letter complaining that most men were 
unscrupulous seducers who “ought to pay, and pay, and pay” when 
fleeing a marriage, Playboy replied, “Ah, shaddup!” “Open Season on 
Bachelors” examined marriage traps laid by women for unsuspecting 
men, while “A Vote for Polygamy” came to the breezy conclusion 
that “the end of the ignoble experiment in monogamy may be near.” 
Hefner and his early readers, resisting the powerful pull of family 
ideology of the 1950s, fantasized sex as a form of play released from 
its ties to marriage and procreation. 23 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 79 


Beyond sex, Playboy advocated a wide variety of leisure activities 
to enhance the good life. Smart, flattering clothing became a must 
in articles such as “That Brooks Brothers Look,” which proclaimed, 
“Burn my zoot suit, mother. Conservative eastern dress is a must this 
season.” Elegant cuisine became another necessity as the magazine 
took on a “food and drink editor” in early 1954, Thomas Mario, who 
expounded upon the “Pleasures of the Oyster” and explained “the 
manly art of outdoor cooking” to aspiring male sophisticates. Sex, of 
course, was never far from the flame. In Marios words, when “you 
deliver the thick, browned steaks, charred and crisp on the outside, 
rare inside” and then hand her an ear of roasted golden bantam com 
on the cob you “detect in her eyes a kind of yielding rapture. Are any 
further stratagems necessary?” 24 

Playboy supplied a steady diet of entertainment. It offered 
sketches of celebrities such as Orson Welles, Steve Allen, and Frank 
Lloyd Wright, while brief tours of music recordings, films, books, 
and sports kept readers conversant with the latest turns in popular 
culture. The renowned musician Dave Brubeck explained “The 
New Jazz Audience.” “Playboy After Hours” began in 1955 with 
reviews of restaurants in Chicago and New York, the new British 
musical The Boy Friend, records by Mabel Mercer, Frank Sinatra, 
and Billie Holiday, the movies Mister Roberts and Pete Kelley’s 
Blues, and books by Harold Bobbins and George Axelrod. The 
annual College Issue surveyed the male student with his “dreams of 
the future bachelor apartment, the hi-fi set, the well-stocked liquor 
cabinet, the sports car — and the bedroom-eyed beauties who will 
help him enjoy it all. These are the dreams, of course, that playboy 
is made of.” 25 

This process of pleasure-priming saw Playboy preparing readers 
to face the challenges of upward mobility. Shepherd Mead, in “How to 
Succeed in Business Without Beally Trying,” deployed satire to mask 
shrewd advice on how to thrive in the corporate world. As he explained, 
“It is the ability to Get Along, to Make Decisions, and to Get Contacts 
that will drive you ahead. Be an ‘all-around man’ of no special abil- 
ity and you will rise to the top.” For the aspiring gourmand, articles 
explained a long list of “common menu terms found in restaurants 
with a continental background.” Essays such as Evelyn Waugh s “The 
Death of Painting” assessed the impact of photography and abstract 
expressionism on modern art. 26 



80 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Playboy’s fictional offerings tried to sharpen readers’ appreciation 
of the finer things in life. Top writers responded to generous pay- 
ments, and the magazine began publishing short stories by distin- 
guished writers such as Ray Bradbury, W. Somerset Maugham, 
Charles Beaumont, John Steinbeck, and James Jones. Some offered 
gems, such as Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a chilling futuristic tale, 
and Beaumont’s “Black Country,” a gripping story about a jazz horn 
player, but others did not hand over their best material. That was fine 
with Playboy. Indeed, a solicitation in Writers Digest revealed the 
type of writing sought by the magazine. “Fiction should be modem, 
aware, sophisticated, highly literate but not literary’; articles should 
treat subjects of interest to the city-bred ‘operator’ who knows his way 
around, and should be handled in a breezy, comfortable, unpedantic 
style; humor should be ribald and/or satirical”; and “Sex, being a part 
of The Good Life, will have an important place in all three catego- 
ries.” In other words, the cultural curriculum taught at the Playboy 
schoolhouse aimed to provide a veneer of sophistication rather than 
the real thing. Compiling a cultural Cliffs Notes for those who had 
earned gentleman’s C’s in college (or for many others who had only 
dreamed of enrolling), the magazine tossed them aesthetic tidbits 
that were challenging, but not too challenging. 27 

Thus Hefner and Playboy defined the central obstacles facing 1950s 
America as matters of lifestyle and taste. He did not stand alone. As 
the historian Jackson Lears has pointed out, most highbrow cultural 
critics in this period also focused on aesthetics, making their critiques 
of American life “a matter of taste” as they excoriated the bland con- 
formity and tasteless consumption that had swallowed up the middle 
class. 28 But instead of elitist chastisement, Hefner utilized “can-do” 
midwestern uplift. Mixing two parts eroticism to one part intellect, and 
adding a dash of irreverent humor, he cheerfully concocted a cultural 
cocktail that eased ambitious young men into a fuller enjoyment of 
American abundance in all of its material and emotional dimensions. 


Ill 


The attraction of Hugh Hefner’s road map to the good life became 
evident in Playboy’s sales. The print run — 70,000 copies for the first 
issue — grew steadily and after one year stood at 185,000. It exploded 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 81 


to 500,000 by the end of 1955, and at 1.1 million copies a month 
passed Esquire by the end of 1956, with gross sales of some $3.5 
million and a net profit before taxes of around $400,000. These quick, 
quantum leaps in readership made the magazine an unprecedented 
success in American publishing history. 29 

Hefner was elated. As he wrote a couple of months after the mag- 
azine s first issue: 

What do you say when a dream comes true? ... I own a 
magazine — a magazine of my very own. . . . Certainly much 
of my life, and especially the last three or four years, has been 
a preparation for this. For there is nothing on earth I would 
rather be doing than editing and publishing this magazine 
called playboy. . . . Perhaps I’ll wake up in a few months and 
it will all be gone. But in this January of 1954, life is just a little 
more wonderful than I ever really believed it could be. 30 

But Hefner did not rest on his laurels. Playboy’s initial success 
drove the young editor to work at an even more frenzied pace. “Hef s 
reaction to the first issue? Going full blast,” recalled Eldon Sellers. 
He worked nearly around the clock and barely saw his wife and 
daughter. Hefner wrote, “playboy consumes seven days of every 
week, more than a dozen hours a day, and I knock off at 1:30 or 2:00 
in the morning” 31 

His personal identification with Playboy became almost total. “Eve 
always edited the magazine for myself, on the assumption that my 
tastes are pretty much like those of our readers. The concept of the 
magazine should grow and broaden with me,” he informed a local 
reporter. The growing profits were gratifying, but his real pleasure 
came from editing and publishing the magazine. It was a labor of love 
that reflected, in his words, “a yearning to communicate, to express 
ones talents and ideas.” Moreover, Hefner began formulating plans 
for expansion — opening Playboy to advertising, publishing a compila- 
tion book, The Best from Playboy, and licensing specialty items like 
calendars and cards. 32 

Impressive sales also brought institutional expansion. Hefner 
had prepared the first three issues of Playboy on his apartment card 
table, but in early 1954 accumulating profits allowed him to rent office 
space in a four-story town house at 11 East Superior Street on the 



82 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Near North Side, directly across from Holy Name Cathedral. Hefner 
was delighted with this location in the bohemian section of Chicago 
that mingled office buildings, boutiques, antique stores, apartments, 
and a teeming nightlife of saloons, strip joints, and clubs. Playboy 
began with one floor of offices, but expansion led to the acquisition 
of all four floors in little more than a year. 33 

The magazine’s profits also rescued the young editor and his family 
from debt. Sales from the first couple of issues permitted them to get 
their furniture out of hock, and Hefner bought a new Studebaker 
for his family on Christmas 1953. In mid-1955, he had the money 
to purchase a new Cadillac Eldorado for himself. He and Millie also 
prepared to move into a large, comfortable lakeshore apartment. 
When dreaming of his own magazine, he wrote, “I didn’t realize that 
it would make me rich, but that’s what it’s doing.” 34 

Even more importantly, however, Playboy ’ s skyrocketing popu- 
larity put the young editor in the public eye. He became a celeb- 
rity, first in his hometown, then gradually throughout the rest of the 
country. He emerged as a subject of discussion and speculation. “His 
angular features usually have a solemn, almost haggard look, though 
occasionally they break into a whimsical grin,” described a feature 
article in Chicago magazine. “He speaks rapidly and evenly, punctu- 
ating a robust dictionary vocabulary with contemporary slang.” Brief 
pieces on Hefner and Playboy appeared in Time and Newsweek by 
mid- 1956, and the editor appeared as a guest on Mike Wallace’s Night 
Beat, a popular New York television show. He became an American 
success story in the best Horatio Alger tradition. As he told a reporter, 
“From the time I left high school until the magazine succeeded, I was 
never a very happy guy. Now it’s something like being in high school 
all over again, but on a much greater scale.” 35 

Hefner’s newfound success also inspired a surge of controversy. 
As Playboy began attracting attention, censorship problems arose. 
In October 1954 the magazine applied for a permanent second-class 
mailing permit — it had been operating with a temporary one up 
to this point — typically issued to periodicals. The U.S. Post Office 
delayed, and then denied, the application on the pretext that Playboy, 
which had skipped an issue because of production problems, was not 
regularly published. Then a reapplication was denied, this time on 
the grounds of obscenity. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield 
informed Hefner that a revision of the magazine’s contents might 



HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND TITILLATE PEOPLE 83 


gain approval. So HMH Publishing brought a civil action against 
Summerfield in federal court in the District of Columbia in 
November 1955. 

Hefner sought an injunction to keep the Post Office from interfer- 
ing with the delivery of his magazine and asked the court to enjoin 
the granting of a second-class permit. He challenged the “censorship 
powers” claimed by the Post Office and presented a ringing declara- 
tion of principle. “We don’t think Postmaster Summerfield has any 
business editing magazines. We think he should stick to delivering 
the mail,” Hefner proclaimed indignantly. “This isn’t a new fight. 
It never is. Yesterday it was Anthony Comstock, today it is Arthur 
Summerfield.” Hefner won a complete legal victory. The court issued 
an injunction restraining the Post Office from interfering with the 
magazine’s distribution and ordered it to grant second-class privileges. 
Eventually, the court awarded Playboy $100,000 in compensation. 36 

A couple of months later, a ruckus arose when Chicago’s 
Northwestern University banned Playboy from its bookstore. It 
claimed that protests had come in from English professors, a navy 
ROTC officer, a women’s service group, an assistant football coach, 
and a fraternity housemother. Upon investigating these “letters of 
complaint,” however, the Daily Northwestern, the student news- 
paper, discovered that the writers were fictitious. Meanwhile, Hefner 
wrote a letter to the university objecting to the ban. Censorship was 
particularly disturbing “in a large university dedicated to the prin- 
ciples of democracy and freedom of speech and press,” he wrote. “Of 
course, these would-be censors may feel that college students aren’t 
yet capable of choosing what to read or see or listen to. . . . These 
same ‘censors’ might next logically lead a raid on the Northwestern 
university library, which undoubtedly includes a great many books 
not quite suited to the adolescent mind.” 37 

With both controversy and success swirling around Playboy, 
Hugh Hefner emerged as a cultural bellwether in postwar America. 
Playboy’s agenda of sensual and material enjoyment reflected the 
nation’s massive, ongoing shift from a work culture to a leisure cul- 
ture. In a climate of unprecedented and widespread abundance, fresh 
desires for play were surmounting traditional demands for labor. 
Burdened too long by the deprivations of economic depression and 
the sacrifices of war, growing numbers of young Americans wanted 
to have fun and enjoy the good life. A restless young midwesterner 



84 


MR. PLAYBOY 


appreciated those desires — indeed, he shared them — and created a 
venue for their expression. Over the last half of the 1950s, his maga- 
zine would go on to create a full-blown fantasy formula designed to 
fulfill them. 

Playboy’s rapid success, however, quickly overwhelmed its crude 
bureaucratic structure. Within months of the first issue, it became 
evident that a single editor and a few assistants, no matter how dedi- 
cated, would not suffice. With typical energy, Hefner threw himself 
into building a larger operation. 



5 


Hedonism, Inc. 


A s Playboy took off in its first year of publication, Hugh Hefner 
faced a happy problem: he was overwhelmed with work. The 
explosion of sales created editorial and production tasks that 
Hefner and a few part-time assistants could not handle. The young 
editor moved to address that need by hiring several individuals — 
editors, artists, photographers, promotions experts, businessmen, 
support staff — to flesh out the publication team. 

This influx brought a number of forceful, talented people to 
Hefners side and made his operation a beehive of creative fer- 
ment. Expansion came in two stages. First, in 1954, the nucleus of 
the Playboy operation took shape with the arrival of a tiny group 
of longtime editorial operatives. Then in 1956 came a second, larger 
wave of hiring that included a group of staffers who would reshape 
further the basic structure and look of the magazine. Throughout this 
growth process, Hefner put his creative stamp on nearly everything 
in Playboy. By the late 1950s, the young publisher had created an 
organizational structure that became the foundation for the magazine 
for decades. 


85 



MR. PLAYBOY 


I 

The early days of Playboy, like those of any successful new venture, 
were marked by a great sense of excitement and anticipation. As 
sales of the first few issues of the magazine rose steadily, Hefner 
put together the skeleton of a publication staff throughout 1954 and 
early 1955. Art Paul came on board as a full-time art director, Ray 
Russell became associate editor, and Vince Tajiri took over as head 
of the photo department. Joe Paczek assumed the duties of paste- 
and-layout man. Marjorie Pitner became an all-purpose reception- 
ist, subscription manager, and bookkeeper, while Eldon Sellers took 
on the tasks of advertising, circulation, and business manager. Pat 
Pappangelis was hired as Hefners secretary, and John Mastro joined 
the organization as production manager. 

The tiny group was energized by a powerful feeling of creating 
something fresh and interesting. Working in the small Superior Street 
town house in an atmosphere marked by common purpose and cama- 
raderie, they felt a sense of mission. “In those early days, it was really 
a team effort. We were all in on the creation of something exciting 
and important,” Pitner reported. “We were there because we loved 
what we were doing.” 1 

With such a small and close-knit staff working in tight quarters at 
the brownstone on Superior Street, there was little division of labor. 
Recalled Pitner, “In those days, I handled everything from tracking 
artwork and editorial material back and forth to the typesetter and 
the printer, to depositing checks from subscribers and labeling their 
copies for mailing.” She also typed manuscripts for the magazine and 
even lent a hand to choosing risque jokes for the “Party Jokes” page, 
until Hefner raised an eyebrow at her awful choices and took her 
off the job. During Playboy’s first Christmas, the entire group gath- 
ered to stuff magazines into envelopes, affix labels, and rush them 
out to mailboxes to get to subscribers on time while listening to Frank 
Sinatras In the Wee Small Hours album. 2 

A sense of closeness marked the office atmosphere. According to 
John Mastro, “We were a family together, we all knew what the job 
was, we had a common goal, and we all knew that if this thing goes, 
it was good for all of us.” When Hefner got his first Cadillac, the 
whole staff gathered to congratulate him, while he personally handed 
out bonus checks and thanked them for their hard work at the office 



HEDONISM, INC. 


87 


Christmas party. An early staffer observed, “There was a closeness 
there, and I guess a lot of it was just because of the fact that we were 
involved in a new adventure .” 3 

Amid this warm atmosphere, several individuals emerged to play 
particularly important creative roles in shaping different parts of the 
magazine. When Art Paul initially joined Playboy, he had worked on 
an hourly basis as Hefner shuttled photos and artwork between his 
kitchen and Pauls small studio. The artist received only partial pay- 
ment. But as the magazine flourished, he agreed to join Playboy as 
full-time art director and took part of his back payment in stock. He 
quickly began to create the cool, sophisticated, slightly irreverent 
graphics that became a hallmark of the magazine . 4 

Paul had been born and raised in Chicago and was trained at both 
the Art Institute and the Institute of Design. A freelance designer 
in his early career, he maintained a strong interest in jazz, classical 
music, and films. Upon his joining Playboy, he and Hefner talked 
extensively about design, communication, and how to say what you 
wanted to say. They collaborated closely on early issues of the maga- 
zine, often working frantically with Paul doing layout and Hefner 
writing copy right up to press time . 5 

The art director, like Hefner, was determined to create a distinc- 
tive look for the magazine. In his words, “I really wanted to see if 
I couldn’t create a whole new visual kind of language.” He sought a 
clean, fresh design style with, in his phrase, “a keen sense of drama.” 
Paul had a hand in shaping every visual component of Playboy : choos- 
ing artwork and arranging photographs, directing layout and type 
styles, consulting on cartoon art and reproductions, and conceptualiz- 
ing special features. He played a key role in designing the magazine s 
cover, which not only had to convey what the issue was about but also 
include the Playboy rabbit symbol (the latter quickly developed into a 
game as readers tried to find the often cleverly hidden head-and-ears 
logo). But whatever the specific project, Paul always aimed for a 
strong relationship between language and graphics. He believed that 
visuals must somehow “broaden the scope of the story or get the 
reader to exercise curiosity .” 6 

While Paul worked with Hefner to shape the distinct graphic 
image of Playboy, Ray Russell arrived to help with a host of edito- 
rial chores. He also had grown up in Chicago, studying acting at the 
Goodman Theatre and music at the Chicago Conservatory of Music 



88 


MR. PLAYBOY 


before serving a stint in the air force during World War II. He was 
working as an editor at the Walgreen Pepper Pod , the house publica- 
tion of Walgreen Drug Stores, when he saw the first issue of Playboy 
in a local bookstore. Noticing the reprinted articles obviously secured 
on the cheap, he sent off a couple of his stories to the magazine 
along with a humorous note recommending that it “wise up and start 
printing a few stories written later than 1889.” To Russell’s surprise, 
he received a phone call a couple of days later from “a young man 
obviously pitching his voice very low in an attempt to sound fifty years 
old.” They set up a meeting at a bar in January 1954, Russell hoping 
to secure a writing assignment or two. Rut Hefner, who arrived car- 
rying his usual oversized briefcase full of artwork and layouts, was so 
impressed that he offered the writer an editorial position on the spot. 
Russell accepted immediately. 7 

He joined Hefner and Paul at the Superior Street offices a couple 
of weeks later. “The three of us constituted the entire editorial and art 
staff of Playboy. There weren’t even any secretaries. Hef and I typed 
our own letters,” Russell related. “Hef and Art and I were constantly 
in and out of each other’s offices, conferring, very occasionally arguing, 
bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm.” Russell became involved 
with every aspect of the magazine dealing with words. He screened 
submissions, edited those chosen for publication, wrote photo cap- 
tions and subscription pitches, reviewed books and movies, and 
“retold” Ribald Classics from Roccaccio and Ralzac. He even wrote 
original articles on current personalities such as Frank Lloyd Wright 
and Dave Garroway. One of his most enduring contributions was 
the subscription pitch titled “What is a Playboy?” that became a key 
expression of the magazine’s philosophy for many years. 8 

Looking like a miniature Orson Welles with his rotund figure, 
beard, cigar, and theatrical personality, Russell threw himself into 
the multitude of tasks facing the tiny staff. When boxes of new maga- 
zines from the bindery arrived, he helped Hefner lug them up the 
stairs and weigh them on a baby scale (it was Hefner’s own, donated 
by his mother) before they were sent out to distributors. He emptied 
the wastebaskets. He scrambled to meet publication deadlines as 
he, Hefner, and Paul often drove to the printing plant in Rochelle 
once a month and stayed up all night amid the roar of machinery 
correcting proof pages as they rolled off the presses still wet. Rut 
Russell loved his work. The early magazine “was crude but vital, 



HEDONISM, INC. 


89 


full of amateurish blunders but also full of freshness and wide-eyed 
enthusiasm,” he noted. 9 

Hefners third important hire was Vince Tajiri, who became photo 
editor. Of Japanese American background and a native of Southern 
California, this self-taught photographer had served during World 
War II with the famous 442nd Infantry before moving to Chicago to 
shoot weddings and assignments for small magazines. He was employed 
at Publisher s Development Corporation when he befriended Hefner. 
He declined to invest in Playboy because of the risk, but responded to 
Hefner s job offer a couple of years later. “When I arrived, the photo 
department was me, one file cabinet, a secretary and two desks,” he 
recalled. Tajiri also wondered aloud if there would be enough work to 
keep him busy — Hefner never let him forget the remark — but soon 
began to focus on creating a distinct photographic style for Playboy. 
He described it as “slick but candid, a cross between advertising pho- 
tography and photo journalism — not only for the nude layouts but 
for fashion, food and drink, all the lifestyle elements that are such an 
integral part of the magazine s identity.” 10 

Something of a perfectionist, Tajiri took great pains to choose just 
the right photos from among the hundreds he took or were submitted 
to him. Photographers sometimes went through eight or ten shoots 
before Tajiri would accept their work. “We always overshoot our 
layouts,” he explained. “For example, we usually shoot about 
120 sheets for each Playmate. . . . We only use about one out of every 
fifty shots.” Tajiri also proved very sensitive to Hefners aesthetic pref- 
erences, especially regarding young women. In his words, the pub- 
lisher liked a natural feeling where the girl was “caught in a moment 
of her life when she was doing something, or has just done something, 
and then looks up at the camera and presumably associates with the 
reader.” This approach also carried over into photographs of cloth- 
ing and meals, where Tajiri proved adept at conveying “the fun you 
could have or enjoy, the tastes of foods, the taste of wines.” His photo- 
graphic style became a hallmark of Playboy. “It is rather slick but we 
try to bring into it a candid, alive, realistic feeling,” he explained. 11 

In 1956, a second stage of staff expansion came as Playboy profits 
funded the move to a four-story office building on Ohio Street. As 
Hefner wrote to his brother in April, “On the business side, every- 
thing I have to report is tremendous. Each month proves incredibly 
better than the last and this obviously cannot go on forever, but the 



90 


MR. PLAYBOY 


end of the growth is not yet in sight.” This continued success of the 
magazine allowed for payment of an annual lease of about $500,000 
following a complete remodeling of the building at a cost of about 
$325,000. It also allowed Hefner to hire several important figures 
who would play major roles in taking Playboy to a new level of popu- 
larity and influence. 12 

His most important move came with the hiring of A. C. Spectorsky. 
In July 1956, Playboy announced that this distinguished New York 
journalist and literary figure would be joining the magazine as 
Hefner’s second-in-command. The publisher had decided that some- 
one carrying credentials with the East Coast establishment would 
help Playboy to gain increased respectability. Playboy had published 
one of Spectorsky s stories, “Some Guys Get It,” under a pseudonym, 
and when Hefner decided to hire a literary editor his name surfaced. 
The young publisher set about luring Spectorsky to Chicago. After 
a phone call established that he might be interested, Hefner flew to 
New York to discuss the situation and offered the job. After a trip to 
Chicago to check out the Playboy operation, Spectorsky accepted. 13 

Arrangements were soon made — a salary of $35,000 a year, an 
expense account, stock options, moving expenses, an advance against 
salary to escape one apartment lease and sign another. Hefner was 
delighted with his new editorial director. Impressed with Spectorsky s 
literary credentials and connections to writers, he described the New 
Yorker as “a real heavyweight” who would “handle a lot of the issue 
by issue problems and free me to plan more of the special features, 
handle long-range planning, etc.” Spectorsky appeared equally 
pleased with his new job. Convinced that his talents and Hefners 
would complement one another perfectly, he told the publisher, “With 
your instincts and my taste, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.” 
Equally important, he was content to remain in the background and 
support Hefner as the public symbol of the magazine. “I think Hef, 
the young sparkplug and head of the whole operation, is the guy who 
should be kept in the foreground,” he wrote in a staff memo. 14 

Auguste Comte Spectorsky did much to bring a more sophisti- 
cated, polished air to the upstart Chicago publication. He came from 
a cosmopolitan background, having been born in Paris in 1910 to 
Russian emigres, and spoke F rench exclusively for the first four years 
of his life, before his parents fled to New York City to escape the 
onrush of World War I. He graduated from New York University after 



HEDONISM, INC. 


91 


majoring in physics and mathematics, but a gift for writing led to a 
stint on the New Yorkers editorial staff. He then became the literary 
editor at the Chicago Sun for six years in the 1940s, before returning 
to New York to work as a writer and editor in movies, television, and 
journalism. In the early 1950s, he authored a much-discussed book, 
The Exurbanites. A tall man with short-cropped hair, large eyes, and 
languid manner, Spectorsky had an elegant, world-weary persona that 
underlined his urbanity, while his age (he was ten or fifteen years 
older than the others on the Playboy staff) contributed further to his 
authority. 15 

Almost immediately, Spectorsky put the magazine in touch with 
the literary culture of the East Coast. Soon after signing on, he and 
his wife, Theo, hosted several parties in New York City to introduce 
Hefner to important authors, publishers, and agents. “Hef knew no 
one, so I took him by the left arm so his right arm was free to shake 
hands, and introduced him to every single person,” Theo related. 
“I couldn’t just introduce him, then leave him on his own because he 
was so shy he’d just shut up.” Moreover, Spectorsky began to exploit 
his literary contacts to bulk up the fiction and nonfiction offerings 
in Playboy. Ken Purdy, for instance, a personal friend, soon became 
a regular contributor, along with an impressive list of fiction writers 
such as John Steinbeck, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, P. 
G. Wodehouse, and Charles Beaumont. Nonfiction authors such as 
Vance Packard, Philip Wylie, Ralph Ginzburg, and Arthur C. Clarke 
joined them. 16 

Equally important, Spectorsky began to construct a talented and 
hardworking staff. Although an imposing figure, he was a pleasant, 
considerate man whom nearly everyone grew to love as well as respect. 
Ray Russell, for instance, initially resented the New Yorker’s arrival but 
soon came “to really like and admire Spec.” Arlene Bouras, who joined 
the magazine as a highly skilled copy editor, found him to be an excel- 
lent line editor and a wonderful discussant on larger questions of style, 
content, and language. Commented an assistant editor, “He’s not only 
the most professional editor I’ve ever met, but he also can write. He 
dictates most of his prose, right into the machine with hardly a change.” 
Spectorsky shouldered many tasks at Playboy — from securing writers 
to reading every word that went into the magazine, from integra t ing 
the various editorial functions to serving as a liaison between edito- 
rial and circulation, from coordinating with graphics and photographs 



92 


MR. PLAYBOY 


operations to okaying the layouts before they went to Hefner for final 
approval. “If there is a man behind the scenes at Playboy” he told an 
interviewer several years later, “I suppose I am it .” 17 

Publicly, Spectorsky expressed contentment with his position. 
“I am a much better writer than when I came to Playboy ” he told 
an interviewer about five years after joining the magazine. “It helped 
me clarify a lot of my thinking about the relationship of the sexes 
and what makes some people happy and others unhappy . . . [and] 
loosened up a lot of rather rigid ideas I’d had without realizing I had 
them.” He also enjoyed the affluence the job brought him, buying a 
big apartment, a sailboat, a yacht club membership, and a big house 
in St. Croix. 

Privately, however, Spectorsky developed profoundly ambivalent 
feelings about working for Playboy. He never got over the idea that 
the magazine, somehow, was beneath his talents. The reasons were 
complex . 18 

In part, Spectorsky viewed his position at the magazine as a sign of 
his failed literary career. “He wanted to write something that would 
last in history,” recalled his wife. “He wanted to achieve stature — 
and he felt that he would never achieve it at Playboy .” Bouras, his 
good friend and colleague, agreed. “He aspired to an awful lot more 
than he ever achieved in life,” she reported. “And I think he knew he 
was capable of original work and he hated himself for never having 
achieved it.” Spectorsky aspired to be editor of the New Yorker, and 
developed a kind of self-contempt when he failed to do so. He would 
tell a story, for instance, about contacting Lionel Trilling, the famous 
literary critic, when Hefner offered him a job. Spectorsky was worried 
that it would be viewed as selling out, but he reported that Trilling 
replied, “You have nothing to sell out.” Spectorsky meant the story to 
be self-deprecating, but most listeners found it to be embarrassing, 
sad, and all too revealing of the teller . 19 

Spectorsky’s ambivalence also appeared in his complicated, love- 
hate connection with Hefner. Publicly, and often privately, he praised 
his boss for his intelligence and described him as “that rare creature in 
this business, a publisher who is primarily editorially-oriented rather 
than business oriented.” He believed that Hefner had an unerring 
instinct for what was right for his magazine, and a broad streak of gen- 
erosity in his personal makeup. At the same time, Spectorsky became 
contemptuous of what he saw as Hefner s deficiencies — bad aesthetic 



HEDONISM, INC. 


93 


taste, an unwillingness to be intellectually challenged, an emotional 
distance from friends and colleagues, an intense selfishness, an unpre- 
dictability in his work hours and decision-making process. Sometimes 
his frustrations boiled over. “You want every article to be the way 
you’d handle it if you were writing it. You refuse to accept an article 
writers own approach to his subject,” he complained to Hefner in 
1957. Playboy’s progress must be judged comprehensively, not by 
“you alone-at-night, vaguely terrified, with frustrated feelings about 
one article.” Spectorsky began referring to Hefner (behind his back) 
as “Godzilla” and emerged from many encounters, according to Ray 
Russell, with “an exasperated gaze heavenward or a weary shake of 
the head, or a sigh of weltschmerz.” 20 

Nonetheless, he yearned for his boss’s approval. “He had a very 
strange relationship with Hefner,” Spectorsky’s wife reported. 
“Almost father-son, but the wrong way around. I don’t know why he 
had this tremendous need to please Hefner but he did.” When the 
magazine’s popularity soared and the publisher credited the editorial 
staff, Spectorsky was elated. Rut when his teenage daughter died 
from a medical complication in the mid-1960s and Hefner was the 
only staff member who failed to offer condolences, he grew despon- 
dent. “There have been times when I’ve hated Hef more deeply than 
anybody I don’t love,” Spectorsky once confessed. “To hate him as 
much as I’ve hated him, you really have to love him.” 21 

Around the same time that Spectorsky arrived on the scene, another 
man joined Playboy who would become one of the most influential, 
and controversial, figures in the organization’s history. Victor Lownes 
met Hefner at a party hosted for the up-and-coming comedian 
Jonathan Winters. The two hit it off immediately and began going 
out to clubs and taverns together. Within a few weeks Hefner offered 
Lownes a job at his magazine, and the young Chicagoan became head 
of promotions. Over the next decade, he also would become promo- 
tions director for the Playboy Clubs. 22 

Victor A. Lownes III came from a silver-spoon background. 
He grew up in Florida as the son of an affluent building contrac- 
tor, while his grandparents on both sides of the family were quite 
wealthy. “There were chauffeured Pierce Arrows and things like that 
in my background,” he once told an interviewer. After attending prep 
school in New Mexico, he matriculated at the University of Chicago, 
married the daughter of a rich cattle rancher from Arkansas, and took 



94 


MR. PLAYBOY 


a job with one of his grandfather’s companies. Although ensconced 
in a fashionable Chicago suburb with a beautiful home and two small 
children, he grew to hate his life. He felt trapped in a tennis-club and 
cocktail-party society while his career stalled in a series of dead-end 
promotion and advertising jobs. So in 1953 Lownes left his family, 
divorced his wife, and moved into a bachelor apartment where he 
began to date showgirls and host boisterous parties. It was at one 
such gathering that he met Hefner. According to Eldon Sellers, a 
friend of both men, Lownes began “romancing” the young publisher 
because he was impressed with him and Playboy and wanted to be 
a part of it. 23 

Lowness charm and sophistication appealed greatly to Hefner. He 
was everything Hefner aspired to be — handsome, debonair, witty, and 
elegantly attired in Brooks Brothers clothing as he seduced count- 
less women who crossed his path. “Hef emulated Victor — he really 
wanted to be Victor,” Theo Spectorsky observed. Playboy staffers 
commented that “when Vic talks, Hef sees it in technicolor.” The two 
developed a real camaraderie, eating at the East Inn and spending 
late-night hours at clubs on Rush Street such as the Cloister Inn, the 
Black Orchid, and Dante’s Inferno. 24 

Lowness oversized personality and outrageous sense of humor 
quickly made him a legend at Playboy. While working late at the 
magazine, he discovered that a local radio show called The Bishops 
Study — a Catholic clergyman would advise callers on personal 
problems — had a telephone number one digit off from that of his 
office phone. So frequently he received the radio shows calls by mis- 
take. Claiming to be the bishops assistant, Lownes dispensed scan- 
dalous advice, urging women to leave their families or counseling 
young people to live together before marriage. One evening when 
a caller asked where the bishop was, Lownes replied, “He’s out get- 
ting drunk.” After mounting complaints, the church program finally 
changed its number. Another time, Lownes successfully convinced a 
beautiful but rather dim young woman that before she bought a dog, 
she should contact “Hertz Rent a Puppy” for a test run. The staff 
choked back laughter as she earnestly paged through the phone book 
looking for the business’s number. 25 

Lowness love life seemed a fantasy lifted from the pages of Playboy . 
A dedicated womanizer and suave bon vivant, he attracted numer- 
ous young women for sexual flings. “Quantity was more important 



HEDONISM, INC. 


95 


than quality in those days,” he admitted later. Lownes and Eldon 
Sellers became roommates and their residence became party cen- 
tral. Lownes bolted together four double beds into what he called a 
“playpen” and covered it with a huge bedspread, while he and Sellers 
made a large bowl of punch with grapefruit juice and grain alcohol. 
Female dancers from the nearby Empire Room would drop by after 
work, and the group would play strip games into the wee hours of the 
morning. Hefner often dropped by to join in the bacchanals. 26 

Lownes poured an enormous amount of energy and creativity into 
Playboy’s promotions department. He convinced Hefner to set up a 
network of college reps to take advantage of the tremendous popular- 
ity of the magazine among male students on campuses. Developing a 
large staff that soon occupied a whole floor of the Ohio Street offices, 
he produced subscription ads, promotional pieces, and items for 
newspaper and magazine columns. He became famous as a fountain 
of new ideas at staff meetings. “He worked like a shotgun,” noted 
one associate. “He’d fire off twelve different ways to do something, 
and one of them would hit.” One of his greatest achievements came 
with Hefner’s pet projects, the 1959 “Playboy Jazz Festival.” At his 
boss’s request, he organized and produced the entire affair — a three- 
day music concert that brought such luminaries as Count Basie, Ella 
Fitzgerald, and Stan Kenton to some twenty thousand jazz fans at 
Chicago Stadium. 27 

At the same time, Lowness freewheeling style and flamboy- 
ant personality caused problems. Unable to delegate authority and 
tremendously egotistical, he intimidated subordinates and spread 
confusion. “I had been so successful with so many ideas that I guess 
I began to feel that they must all be good, and people should accept 
them unquestionably,” he confessed later. “And when they didn’t I’d 
try to browbeat them into it.” When the promotions department 
became mired in dissension or confusion, Hefner scolded Lownes 
for sacrificing competence to creativity. “You’ve got to give me more 
than devotion and more than creative genius,” he wrote. “I also need 
organization and efficiency, a meeting of deadlines, a following of 
procedures.” 28 

Moreover, Lownes indulged dark impulses in his personality. 
Displaying a cruel streak that alienated even his admirers, he often 
turned dictatorial. A master of the putdown, he zeroed in on people’s 
personal weaknesses and tormented them with sarcastic jibes. 



96 


MR. PLAYBOY 


“He was just an abrasive man with everybody,” Theo Spectorsky 
said. “He mistreated everybody, ranted and raved, screamed at 
people.” Colleagues described him as “brutal,” “vicious,” and a “rat.” 
Part of this arrogant behavior stemmed from his background as a 
spoiled rich kid, but another part was rooted in tragedy. As a boy, 
Lownes had shot and killed a young friend in a hunting accident. 
A Playboy colleague believed that he treated people so badly because, 
subconsciously, he wanted them to hate him because of that terrible 
mishap. 29 

Lownes s abrasive behavior caused severe problems in the promo- 
tions department. Displaying the classic sign of the bully by picking 
on the weak, he “ruled by outright terror” over subordinates, accord- 
ing to one colleague. Instead of politely approving or disapproving 
proposals from subordinates, for example, he pounded a reply on 
their memos with a special rubber stamp, one of which had, Roman 
style, a closed fist with the thumb pointed up and the other with it 
pointing down. On occasion his rudeness would cause his entire staff 
to “quit en masse — the whole floor — and just walk out the door. Hef 
would run out to calm everyone down.” Once, when his maltreatment 
of employees caused a momentary pang of guilt, Lownes put a jar of 
quarters on his desk and told everyone to take a coin whenever he 
said something nasty to them. The jar was soon empty. 30 

Lowness impulse to belittle and dominate others found a par- 
ticularly unpleasant outlet in his treatment of women, producing 
boorish behavior and social agitation. He enjoyed sexual conquest, 
discarded women at his pleasure, and expected girlfriends to obey 
his every whim. According to one, “You wore what he said. And you 
did just what he said.” Once, he concocted a late-night plan to have 
Hefner go to his apartment, crawl in bed with his sleeping girlfriend, 
and pretend to be Lownes as he made love to her. Things backfired, 
however, when the drowsy young woman excused herself to use the 
bathroom and instead called the police to report a “weirdo” who had 
broken into the residence. Officers arrived soon, and a highly embar- 
rassed Hefner had to explain his way out of this predicament. When 
friends, in recognition of Lownes s bad treatment of women, presented 
him with the Golden Prick Award at a party, he began a mock accep- 
tance speech: “I would like to thank the members of the academy ...” 
Despite such outrageous, egocentric behavior, he became one of the 
brightest stars in the Playboy organization by the late 1950s. 31 



HEDONISM, INC. 


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Other influential figures joined the magazine around the same 
time. Jack Kessie stepped in as associate editor in 1956, helping to 
establish the magazine’s signature style under the pseudonym of 
“Blake Rutherford,” author of numerous mens fashion pieces over 
the next decade. He personified the Playboy vision of the good life. 
Always tastefully attired, he “had the bachelor pad, the hi-fi and the 
wet bar, dined at all the elegant restaurants, drank the right wines, 
drove the right sports car,” in the words of a colleague. Around the 
office, his frequent lunches with Ray Russell — the two would trade 
witticisms, barbs, and bons mots as they liberally lubricated their food 
with martinis — became much-discussed social events. 32 

Anson “Smoky” Mount, a friendly, pipe-smoking Tennessean, 
became the magazine’s expert on college football. He supervised the 
college bureau, created the famous “Pigskin Preview” each fall, and 
began selecting Playboy’s All-American players. From a deeply reli- 
gious background, he also emerged as the magazine’s spokesman and 
toured the country giving talks and debating fundamentalist critics 
of Hefner’s philosophy. Like Kessie, he identified totally with the 
Playboy lifestyle, wearing rabbit-ear cuff links and pins and talking 
up the magazine to anyone who listened. 33 

Artist LeRoy Neiman joined the staff. An old acquaintance of 
Hefner’s from his Carson Pirie Scott days, he had studied at the 
Chicago Art Institute, painted murals in the army, and eventually 
moved into fashion illustration. In 1954 he illustrated his first story 
for Playboy, a Charles Beaumont tale titled “Black Country,” and 
over the next year he contributed sketches for other stories and did a 
cover. By 1956, Neiman’s paintings and sketches had become recur- 
ring features in the magazine. A couple of years later, he made his 
enduring mark on Playboy with “Man at His Leisure,” a series cover- 
ing the most glamorous, exclusive social and sporting scenes in the 
world. Neiman’s stylish illustrations of grand hotel suites in London 
and Venice, Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, the Cannes Film Festival, 
the Grand National Steeplechase in England, the Grand Prix in 
Monaco, and bullfights in Madrid became identifiable symbols of the 
Playboy lifestyle. In later years he would create the magazine’s famous 
“Femlin,” the illustrated long-haired pixie female wearing only long 
black gloves and black stockings. His artistic style — impressionistic 
with elegant, elongated figures and bold, slashing colors and an aura 
of sophisticated elegance — was well suited to the young magazine. 



98 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Neiman’s personal appearance as a fashionable street tough with a 
brusque, profane manner, an ever-present cigar, and a shock of black 
hair and extravagantly large mustache made an equally strong impact 
in the magazine s offices. 34 

With the expansion of the Playboy staff, the atmosphere at the 
magazine gradually changed. The close-knit ambiance became more 
corporate and turf battles began to emerge. According to one insider, 
Spectorsky, Paul, Lownes, andTajiri “spent more time infighting and 
backbiting and jockeying for position than they did working together 
for the good of the magazine.” But the feeling of excitement survived; 
a sense, in Hefners phrase, of “riding a rocket.” In this freewheel- 
ing social atmosphere inhabited by young, vibrant, talented men and 
women, the air became thick with eroticism. “There was a lot of sex- 
ual high jinks at Playboy in the 1950s,” Hefner recalled later. “Sex in 
the office was commonplace.” 35 

Thus, by the mid-1950s, Hefner had begun building an organiza- 
tion but remained clearly atop it. Absolutely devoted to Playboy, he 
imprinted his personality and tastes on every aspect of the publica- 
tion. He combined boyish enthusiasm with a ferocious work ethic to 
lead, and occasionally herd, a talented and strong group of subordi- 
nates in the direction he envisioned. He had hired people, in his own 
words, “who could do something you wanted even better than you 
could do it yourself.” As the creative force driving the magazine, his 
life and his work became indistinguishable. 36 


II 

F rom the very beginning, when Playboy sold out its first few issues 
and scrambled to its feet financially, Hugh Hefner immersed himself 
in the publication of the magazine. When he and his tiny staff moved 
into the house on Superior Avenue in early 1954, he ensconced him- 
self in his fourth-floor office. With a small bedroom and kitchenette 
appended to the office, he frequently slept there and his family saw 
him less and less. Quite literally, he lived his work. 

Hefner followed a work schedule that awed his subordinates. 
Marshalling incredible amounts of energy, intensity, and enthusiasm, 
he threw himself into publishing Playboy. A staffer described him as 
“monomaniacal” and noted, “Women may have been his pastime, but 



HEDONISM, INC. 


99 


Playboy was his life.” Essentially, he lived at Superior Street, running 
out for bites to eat, catching a few hours of sleep in his office bedroom, 
and then beginning again. “He’s a very intense, dedicated individual,” 
observed Vince Tajiri. “He goes along with maybe a 1000 rpm’s while 
most of us are going at 400 and there’s this intensity, and also this 
impatience.” He became famous among the secretaries for forgetting 
names, dates, and various peripheral matters because, in the words of 
one, “his mind was too full of things he was working on.” 37 

With the move to the Ohio Street offices, Hefner’s work schedule 
maintained its exhausting pace while becoming more eccentric. 
His new office suite also had a small bedroom, as well as bathroom 
and dressing room, and he would work deep into the early morn- 
ing hours, catch some sleep, and begin his workday sometime after 
noon the following day. “Every afternoon, he would come barreling 
out of his office as if shot from a cannon, and all hell would break 
loose,” Arlene Bouras described. “He would ricochet from office 
to office issuing orders, finding out why yesterday’s orders hadn’t 
been carried out, always demanding more than he was getting from 
everyone who worked with him.” As the start of his workday began 
moving toward midafternoon, production manager John Mastro kid- 
ded, “Hef, I haven’t figured out if you’re a day ahead of us or a day 
behind us.” Several celebrated habits began to emerge. First, Hefner 
took to working in his pajamas as the boundary between personal life 
and job dissolved. Second, he began to fill his office — floor, desk, 
tables — with stacks of material. “His own office is a huge, cluttered 
room awash with copies of magazines, books, cartoon roughs, proofs, 
records, and prints of past and future Playmates,” noted a newspaper 
story. According to the cartoonist Shel Silverstein, visitors “really did 
have to step carefully to get over and around everything.” 38 

Hefner also grew more jaded. In Playboy’s early days at Superior 
Street, for instance, the jazz musician Stan Kenton, one of the publish- 
er’s idols, stopped by to thank the magazine for honoring him in its first 
jazz poll. When Hefner heard, according to LeRoy Neiman, he charged 
down the stairs to meet his hero because “that’s the kind of gee-whiz 
guy he was in those days.” Only two years later, however, after the move 
to Ohio Street, Kenton dropped by to be photographed when Hefner 
strolled through the studio looking at some papers and drinking a Pepsi. 
He glanced over and saw Kenton “sitting there on a stool under the 
floodlights, and he says, ‘Oh, hi, Stan,’ and wanders out again.” 39 



100 


MR. PLAYBOY 


But all of Hefners personal quirks faded before his perfectionism, 
which drove him to involvement in every facet of Playboy. He 
expected everyone to share his passion for the magazine and created 
daunting standards of achievement. “He asked more of us than we 
were capable of giving, and that brought out the best in us,” Bouras 
explained. When Mastro once complained that a production revision 
would be too expensive, he replied, “John, you worry about getting it 
right; let me worry about the cost .” 40 

Hefners exacting standards, however, did not prevent him from 
being a generous boss during Playboy’s early years. He took time 
to talk with employees such as Marge Pitner and Pat Pappangelis 
about personal difficulties and in one case advanced an employee 
a large sum of money to pay for several months of treatment for an 
emotional problem. While a workaholic, he was no slave driver to his 
staff. “Hef, I just can’t work any harder,” John Mastro once told him. 
“I know it, John,” Hefner answered. He had a special ability to convey 
enthusiasm and inspire subordinates to give their all. His “power of 
persuasion,” Eldon Sellers commented, “almost got you into a hyp- 
notic state.” A sly sense of humor often lightened the mood. Hefner 
once quipped to the dignified Spectorsky, “Eve figured out why you 
and your wife are so sophisticated. You practice fidelity for kicks.” 
Spectorsky observed that his boss was “able to detect the limitations 
and drawbacks of a person as well as his virtues and advantages,” 
chew him out if necessary, “then re-inspire him and make him feel 
good and loved about his work .” 41 

At the same time, Hefner could become distant and impatient. 
While forbearing with lesser staffers, he would grow testy with lieu- 
tenants, snapping, “Come on. Get to the point.” The publishers 
intense focus and high expectations also made him reluctant, perhaps 
unable, to compliment members of the Playboy staff. Art Paul, for 
instance, observed Hefner struggling to commend editors, artists, 
photographers, and production people, noting, “You can almost see 
him working on it.” Hefner simply expected others to share his single- 
minded devotion to, and high standards for, the magazine . 42 

Yet his leadership style allowed input from talented subordi- 
nates when it served the larger purposes of improving the maga- 
zine. When Hefner disagreed with Art Paul over graphics issues, 
he usually backed down, saying, “You’re the art director.” He also 
swallowed his own judgment and allowed Ray Russell to push ahead 



HEDONISM, INC. 


101 


with “The Contaminators,” a 1959 nonfiction article dealing with 
the dangers of radioactive pollution. Hefner feared that such an 
article would be too controversial and weighty for an entertainment 
magazine, but when the piece elicited much praise, he was delighted 
to have been proven wrong. As Hefner described later, he tried to 
direct his organization by “more leading than pushing — getting 
people to where I wanted them to be — whether it was a cartoonist 
or an art director.” 43 

As Playboy grew in the mid-1950s, Hefner increasingly focused 
on a central task — shaping the magazine’s point of view. He sought to 
have all features revolve around a central theme of enjoying the plea- 
sures of the good life, and to do so with a consistent tone of irreverent 
sophistication. In a 1956 memo to the staff, he outlined this goal: 

I don’t want anything in Playboy that runs counter to the basic 
editorial attitude of the magazine. . . . [We want] not only 
features within the magazine that are in themselves entertain- 
ing, but also service features on such things as food, drink, 
fashion, and travel that help make life entertaining. ... In our 
critical columns, where more than anywhere else we give some 
definition to our point of view, we offer opinions on music, clas- 
sical as well as popular and jazz, on books and plays and theatre 
and films, and we often try to say rather important things about 
all this (although we hope to say it entertainingly). . . . Our non- 
fiction can sometimes have something to say just a bit deeper 
than it is fun to pinch girls in crowds and still not run counter 
to the fundamental policy of the magazine. ... I don’t want 
articles that preach, or are pompous, or primarily concerned 
with international affairs, religion, or racial friction. 44 

Hefner directed his energies into molding every element in Playboy 
around its “basic editorial attitude.” According to Vince Tajiri, he scru- 
tinized every photograph that went into the magazine with “the perfec- 
tionism of a diamond cutter” to make sure it fit the house style. Arlene 
Bouras received voluminous memos on appropriate type style, copy- 
editing, punctuation, and proofreading that became the basis of the 
magazine stylebook. His insistence that bullets rather than white 
space be used to separate sections in a manuscript became gospel. 
“If Jesus Christ himself ever came down and asked for white space, 



102 


MR. PLAYBOY 


we wouldn’t give it to him,” he declared. Hefner directed that ads 
for tawdry products, no matter how profitable, would not be allowed: 
“We won’t accept anything as an advertisement with sex as its primary 
appeal .” 45 

Hefner’s attention to detail penetrated every nook and cranny of 
the operation. He monitored articles on men’s clothing to make sure 
they represented “the new and unusual in fashion.” He scrutinized 
photographs for their sophistication, declaring, “I don’t want Playboy 
to simply follow fashion — I want it to create trends, to point direc- 
tions.” Hefner critiqued drafts of movie reviews for excessive artiness. 
“Because Playboy is not edited for the select, super-brow. ... I think 
we should be trying a little harder to fit our reviews to the editorial 
point of view of the magazine,” he instructed. “Instead, we’re getting 
a lecture on cinematic art.” He demanded a more sympathetic article 
on Charlie Chaplin, one that reflected Playboy’s recognition that “the 
dreamer and idealist [was someone] who may not always conform, 
who may not always be right . . . who may do things of great artistic 
brilliance followed by things of uneven or even inept quality, for such 
is the nature of genius .” 46 

Music lay especially close to Hefner’s heart and drew special 
attention. He hired the distinguished jazz writer and critic Leonard 
Feather, and solicited a series of pieces on the history of jazz. He 
requested articles “that will explain the differences in the kinds of 
jazz, how they developed and something about the men and circum- 
stances responsible for them.” When the soundtrack for the movie 
High Society was released, he asked for a review combining senti- 
mentality (a Hefner trademark) with the usual hip commentary. The 
record had “kept me in a warm, romantic glow all evening,” he told 
Spectorsky. “Let’s mix a little sweetness with the sulphuric acid you 
guys are brewing. . . . The songs are all originals by Cole Porter, there 
are some real beauties here.” He also mandated increased attention 
to television as a growing form of entertainment . 47 

Always, of course, Hefner relentlessly promoted Playboy to 
the public. In a long letter to old friend Burt Zollo, whose company 
was publicizing the magazine, he complained about a lack of results. 
He insisted that the magazine should be easy to promote. “A bunch 
of Chicago guys have put together the craziest publishing success in a 
decade and not a single Chicago newspaper has done a feature story 
on it,” he groused. “The special services that we might expect from 



HEDONISM, INC. 


103 


a public relations organization with many contacts and much know- 
how just aren’t coming off.” Wi t hin a short time, Hefner signed on 
with a new public relations firm. 48 

Ultimately, however, the key to Hefner’s approach was that he 
edited Playboy for himself, aiming it at his own tastes and values. 
“Hefner used to tell us that he had the book done for his satisfac- 
tion and that if he liked it others would, too,” Jack Kessie reported. 
Said Victor Lownes, “It was a guidebook for him, just as it was for 
millions of young college men.” Spectorsky concurred: “The reason 
he’s so good at his job is he’s schizophrenic enough to be editor and 
publisher and, at the same time, audience.” Hefner usually asked for 
opinions and input, but in the final analysis he always went with his 
own sense of what was appealing. When asked about this, he replied 
simply, “It’s a very personal book and a very personal business.” Later, 
he explained in more depth. “I was doing the magazine for myself, 
but it was . . . my perception of a young urban guy in a connection 
with the opposite sex. I created a kind of romanticized, idealized 
young urban bachelor and aimed the magazine at this figure.” 49 

In 1956, an evaluation revealed just how well suited he was to his 
job when Hefner hired a firm to administer psychological audits to all 
executives at the magazine, including himself. The report described 
him as “well qualified for your present position as Editor- Publisher 
of Playboy magazine” and affirmed his great mental ability, a broad 
streak of creativity, tremendous drive, and zest for his work. But the 
evaluators also noted several dangers in Hefner’s makeup: a weaker 
sense of planning and administration, an element of impulsivity and 
immaturity in formulating actions, a habit of working to the point of 
physical exhaustion, and an inability to delegate authority that por- 
tended trouble when the organization grew larger. Overall, however, 
the audit concluded that Hefner would thrive when administering 
“creative programs. This direction should be satisfying to your high 
needs for self-expression.” 50 

Clearly, Hefner was doing something right. One of the great 
success stories in American publishing, Playboy surged upward in 
1956 from eightieth place to become the forty-ninth largest-selling 
magazine in the country, passing Esquire in the process and posting 
a 102 percent gain, the largest in the industry. It had net sales of 
just over $3 million. By the end of 1959 its circulation had climbed 
to over one million copies a month while total revenue swelled to 



104 


MR. PLAYBOY 


$5.5 million. The magazine’s growing size and complexity reflected its 
popularity. While the January 1957 issue was eighty pages long with 
nineteen features and articles, the December 1960 issue was almost 
double that size, with 150 pages and twenty-eight features. 51 

As the magazine grew, so did Hefners confidence. When he 
offhandedly expressed an interest in making foreign movies, a lieu- 
tenant replied, “The only trouble with that, Hef, is that you’ll have 
to be in a foreign country.” The publisher replied, “Okay, in that case 
well start our own.” But Hefner also clearly appreciated his success. 
In December 1958, on Playboy’s fifth anniversary, he expressed his 
gratitude: 

When I sit at my desk here in the playboy building, looking 
back to that day in the fall of 1953 when all this began, it all 
seems quite unreal. When I put together that first thin issue 
of playboy ... I hoped only that the magazine might be 
successful enough to permit me to continue working at what 
I loved instead of wasting a life away at something else that I 
didn’t really care about. But this labor of love has turned into 
the most spectacular magazine success of our generation, has 
brought me in five years more recognition and wealth and 
purpose than I ever dreamed of having in an entire lifetime. 

I am — I think — one of the luckiest men in all the world. 52 

But what had fueled the skyrocketing popularity of Playboy? 
Hefner believed that people sensed “right away, very early, it wasn’t 
just a magazine. It was a projection of people’s fantasy life.” Yet what 
was the content of this fantasy? What exactly were people respond- 
ing to in Playboy’s imaginative vision? In fact, Hefner’s magazine 
captured perfectly two powerful trends in postwar American culture: 
sexual liberation and consumer abundance. From these elements 
Playboy created an enticing dream world of physical and material 
pleasure for a society grown increasingly impatient with restraint. 53 



6 


The Pursuit of 
Happiness 


I n the fall of 1956, Hugh Hefner appeared on The Mike Wallace 
Interview , a popular television show in New York City. The host, 
who would become famous in a few years as a national reporter for 
CBS, was already building a reputation as a tough interviewer. He 
confronted his guest immediately. “Tonight our guest is the thirty- 
year-old brain behind the hottest property in the publishing world,” 
Wallace began. “And well try to find out why he really did start 
Playboy and whether or not it is just a smutty book.” Noting that 
the magazine presented pictures of girls in various states of undress, 
he asked Hefner if he enjoyed the profits from this “oversexed” 
endeavor. 

Hefner defended himself. Sex, he admitted, was an important 
component in Playboy because it was important to his audience of 
young, urban males. But he noted that the magazine also included 
much material on clothing, music, automobiles, and food and drink as 
well as literature by distinguished authors. When Wallace suggested 


105 



106 


MR. PLAYBOY 


that what he was really selling was “a high-class dirty book,” Hefner 
replied, “There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty. A picture 
of a beautiful woman is something that a fellow of any age ought to 
be able to enjoy,” he maintained. “It is the sick mind that finds some- 
thing loathsome and obscene in sex.” But Wallace refused to relent, 
and the publisher finally grew annoyed. “I would estimate that no 
more than 5% of any issue of playboy is concerned with sex, and 
we seem to be devoting an entire half-hour program to it tonight,” 
he snapped at one point. 1 

This rhetorical exchange reflected the first stirrings of what came 
to be called the “sexual revolution.” As middle-class America enjoyed 
a great wave of prosperity in the 1950s and older habits of self-denial 
withered, a new commitment to pleasure penetrated into the most 
intimate, personal realm of human life: sex. Increasingly, many ben- 
eficiaries of the culture of abundance challenged older ideas about 
proper sexual values that had been in place since the nineteenth 
century. This movement emerged as a coalition of those pursuing a 
sexualization of culture, those advocating a reconfiguration of family 
life and gender roles, those deploying sex as a political tool to assault 
bourgeois life, and those seeking greater tolerance for diverse sex- 
ual practices. These groups found a common enemy in traditions of 
sexual restraint supported by church, state, and middle-class values. 
As pressure mounted from dissenters and agitators, cracks appeared 
in the edifice of sexual propriety that dominated American culture in 
terms of music, movies, popular literature, and dating etiquette. 2 

Playboy , with its erotic photographs and dissenting editorial 
stance, offered one of the earliest open displays of rebellion. Arbiters 
of mainstream culture took note. In 1957, a playful cartoon in 
the New Yorker featured a drawing of a sultan surrounded by dozens 
of beautiful harem girls as he sat reading a copy of Playboy. That same 
year, a long article in the Nation examined the growth of sophistica- 
tion in America by examining magazines such as Vanity Fair ; Esquire, 
Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. It also noted a new arrival. “The recent 
phenomenon of the sophistication business is Playboy,” it explained. 
“Starting bawdily and naively, it has grown progressively subtler” 
with its photographs of fresh, attractive young women from ordinary 
avenues of American life. “I must applaud a brand-new invention in 
eroticism which grew out of the free-wheeling, ebullient attitude of 
the editors,” noted the author. 3 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


107 


While the sexual revolution would not arrive full-blown until the 
middle of the next decade, the 1950s saw initial rumblings. Perhaps 
more than any other single individual, Hefner represented the first 
stage of rebellion as Playboy expressed a growing, if inchoate, yearn- 
ing for a new sexual code. 


I 

In later years, Hefner often asserted that a desire to overthrow 
prevailing American attitudes about sex in the 1950s had prompted 
him to start Playboy. The culprit creating this prudish, hypocritical 
climate, he believed, was Americas Puritan past. He himself had been 
taught as a youngster that sexuality reflected humans’ animal instincts 
and, as such, was something to be distrusted and repressed. “I began 
questioning a lot of that religious foolishness about man’s spirit and 
body being in conflict, with God concerned primarily with the spirit of 
man and the Devil dwelling in the flesh,” he wrote. “I wanted to edit a 
magazine free of guilt about sex.” Playboy, with this agenda, provided 
a voice for those beginning to search for a new sexual morality. 4 

While Hefner’s appraisal of Playboy’s liberationist role contained 
much truth, he misidentified the enemy. The publisher followed the 
lead of H. L. Mencken, the literary and social critic, who had launched 
hilarious, mocking attacks on the abiding heritage of Puritanism 
in the 1910s and 1920s. But the cultural opposition actually came 
from a different source. The sexual atmosphere that Hefner found 
to be so suffocating, in fact, was the legacy of nineteenth-century 
Victorian ideology rather than the Puritan theology of the seven- 
teenth and eighteenth centuries. The belief that desires required 
self-denial and bodily appetites demanded self-control, while rooted 
in centuries-old Christian principles, had emerged wholesale from 
Victorian moralists in the nineteenth century, whose worldview had 
been shaped in the nexus of a rapidly expanding market capitalism 
and a vibrant evangelical Protestantism. Victorians insisted that pas- 
sions, if unrestrained, would undermine the capacity for hard work, 
a virtuous private life, and a benevolent public one. Sexuality, of 
course, stood high on their list of sensual delights to be repressed. 
Popular advice writers like Sylvester Graham instructed young men 
and women that sexual indulgence led to moral decline, physical 



108 


MR. PLAYBOY 


dissipation, and social disaster. By the late nineteenth century, 
sexual orthodoxy had produced a host of anti-vice statutes, such as 
the Comstock Act (1873), which banned obscene materials from the 
mail. Anthony Comstock, an intrepid foe of erotic materials as well 
as contraceptives and abortifacients, was appointed a special agent 
of the U.S. Post Office and spent the next three decades removing 
sexual materials from avenues of public exchange, including stores 
and shops. He became the ultimate symbol of Victorian rectitude on 
sexual matters. 5 

Victorian ideology, however, was tottering by the early decades 
of the twentieth century. Advocates of an emerging consumer econ- 
omy encouraged the embrace of leisure, pleasure, and play and the 
abandonment of self-denial. A new ethos of self-fulfillment inspired 
advertising messages promising personal happiness through the pur- 
chase of goods; new amusement parks such as Coney Island showcased 
the delights of recreation; and new advice literature, such as Dale 
Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, stressed the 
necessity of sparkling personality instead of upright character. Yet 
Victorianism, while desiccated in many areas, maintained a powerful 
hold on sexual culture well into the middle decades of the twentieth 
century. Ensconced in small-town America and bolstered in urban 
areas by Catholic and Protestant churches, sexual orthodoxy actu- 
ally received a new boost after World War II from a popular credo 
of “family togetherness” that made domestic harmony a hallmark of 
American life, and defined it as a key source of strength in the larger 
Cold War struggle against communism. 6 

Thus Hefner, indeed, faced a powerful, long-standing opposi- 
tion in the Eisenhower era. In sexual matters, Victorian restraint and 
repression still loomed large in American culture. As one historian has 
put it, middle-class respectability “provided a clear set of rules about 
sexual behavior. At its heart was a simple stricture: no sex outside mar- 
riage.” Propriety made dating into a complex series of stages (going 
steady, pinned, engaged), with an attendant hierarchy of carefully 
negotiated physical intimacies (necking, petting above the waist, below 
the waist, through clothes, under clothes). Parents and schools limited 
opportunities for young people to have sexual contact by imposing 
curfews, controlling use of the car, and encouraging double dating. 7 

Yet scattered challenges to the sexual orthodoxy sprang up in the 
1950s. The Kinsey Reports, with their analysis of male and female 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


109 


sexual practices, created a storm of controversy by revealing the extent 
to which actual conduct violated official values . Much popular reading 
material — Grace Metalious s salacious best-seller Peyton Place, tell- 
all scandal magazines such as Confidential, Mickey Spillane mysteries 
pulsating with violence-tinged eroticism — broached parameters of 
sexual propriety. Rock V roll, unforgettably symbolized by Elvis 
Presley and his gyrating hips, blared rhythmic sensuality and sug- 
gestive lyrics to dancing teenagers. Gradually, a powerful assault on 
traditional notions of sexual restraint began gathering momentum. 8 

Hefner and Playboy particularly popularized an ideology of sex- 
ual liberation in the 1950s that began to erode traditional values. 
A Thomas Paine for the mid-twentieth century who distilled complex 
ideas into bright prose and vivid images, Hefner entered public life as 
the pamphleteer of the sexual revolution. He stressed several themes 
in his rhetorical and visual assault on the palisades of propriety. 

Hefner propagated the deceptively simple idea that sex should be 
fun. Throughout the first decade of Playboy’s publication, he attacked 
the traditional formulation that sex must be either sacred or sinful 
and rejected the cultural dictum that it should be strictly relegated 
to the realm of marriage. In the modern world, he argued, sex could 
no longer be linked exclusively to procreation and the sanction of 
church and state. It existed for a variety of purposes. In his words, “it 
could be recreational, a sense of identity in terms of who you are, an 
expression of love.” Hefner sought to make the erotic legitimate on 
its own terms. 9 

Throughout the 1950s, Playboy promoted the notion that sex was 
for human pleasure. As Hefner once quipped, “We believe sex should 
be enjoyed right along with nasty pleasures like drinking and gam- 
bling.” A host of articles, stories, and images followed his editorial 
lead. “Don’t Hate Yourself in the Morning” reassured virile readers 
that young women also sought erotic experiences outside marriage. 
“Many women are beginning to adopt the sexual attitude of bach- 
elors, in that they want physical pleasure — or relief, if you prefer — 
without having to pay for it by signing up for a lifetime.” “Contour 
Contact: The Gentle Art of Laying Hands on Lasses All About You” 
instructed young men in techniques of delicately stroking the arm 
of a young woman, helping her into or out of a taxi, or leaning over 
to smell the perfume she had dabbed behind her ear. Such subtle 
physical contact provided a “sadly undervalued means for discharging 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


pent-up emotion.” “The Big Bosom Battle” disagreed with a physician 
who recently had called for a deemphasis on female breasts because 
they threatened to make women neurotic and create a cultural fixa- 
tion. “We just can’t go along with this bosom deceleration,” noted the 
magazine. “We agree that there’s a lot of interest in the things, but we 
say there can never be too much. Such interest is healthy and adds to 
the gaiety of nations .” 10 

Pictorials in Playboy elaborated the sex-is-fun theme. A feature 
titled “Playboy’s Yacht Party” displayed four scantily clad (and 
occasionally unclad) young women going out for a relaxed vacation on 
a yacht accompanied by an attentive crew of sailors, while “Playboy’s 
House Party” depicted a similar group romping through a sensual day 
and evening at a beachside home in Miami. Other typical features 
focused on females from various regions of the United States, such as 
“The Girls of Hollywood,” which offered intimate glimpses of some 
fifteen attractive women where the “sun-kissed strip of California 
coast known as Hollywood draws unto itself the most beautiful girls 
in the world.” “Minsky in Vegas” described the burlesque king Harold 
Minsky and his popular lineup of seminude showgirls at the Dunes 
Hotel. Playboy also ran revealing pictorials on a whole series of 
Hollywood starlets eager for exposure — Sophia Loren, Kim Novak, 
Jayne Mansfield, Brigitte Bardot, Stella Stevens, Marilyn Monroe . 11 

Disregarding the sacrosanct quality of traditional discussions of sex, 
Playboy consistently used humor to lighten the atmosphere. “Some 
people seem to think it’s all right to joke about robbing a bank, when 
you wouldn’t actually do it, but they don’t apply the same reasoning 
to adultery,” Hefner observed. He penned a humorous article, 
“Virginity: An Important Treatise on a Very Important Subject,” in 
which he joked that most men saw virginity as an unpleasant mat- 
ter to be disposed of quickly. Unfortunately, he added, “this impor- 
tant information has been withheld from a large part of our female 
population.” Hefner then offered a lighthearted analysis of various 
arguments that men could present to reluctant female partners. He 
confessed partiality to the “Freudian Approach,” which emphasized 
the dangers inherent in frustrating the libido, and the “Atomic Age 
Approach,” which posited that the threat of nuclear destruction made 
it imperative to live for tonight . 12 

Shepherd Mead’s “How to Succeed With Women Without 
Beally Trying” series satirized the lifelong male search for female 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


111 


companionship. In one installment, he observed that a boy noticing 
physical changes in his body was ready to become a man but must “go 
through a period which may seem long, but which will actually last no 
more than ten or twelve years.” Mead continued, “Never in all the 
march of civilization have so many had to wait for so long. But you will 
say, as others have before you, that it was surely worth it.” Playboy’s 
cheerful take on sexuality also flavored cartoons by Jack Cole, Erich 
Sokol, John Dempsey, and Gardner Rea. A typical cartoon showed a 
red-faced, pleasantly befuddled tippler who inquired of two Salvation 
Army crusaders beating on a bass drum, “You mean if I sow liquor 
& dames, I’ll reap liquor and dames?” Regular features such as “The 
Ribald Classic,” a series of short, humorous tales of seduction and 
romance, and the risque “Party Jokes” page, also sought to replace 
sexual solemnity with laughs. 13 

Playboy reformulated seduction in the 1950s, depicting it as 
neither improper nor immoral, but a social ritual full of romance, 
excitement, and anticipation. Hefner filled the magazine with images 
and instructions regarding the accoutrements of sexual attraction. 
Food editor Thomas Mario articulated the seductive role of fine food 
and wine in articles such as “The Breaking of the Fast: Morning 
Menus for Two,” which instructed a young man on the proper way to 
prepare and present breakfast for a woman the morning after. Blake 
Rutherford (the pseudonym of associate editor Jack Kessie) pre- 
sented a long series of pieces on the sexual appeal of elegant, under- 
stated clothing. Numerous articles on hi-fi systems, the correct way to 
mix a martini, and the most powerful, current sports cars underlined 
the connection between worldly goods and sexual allure. “Playboys 
Penthouse Apartment,” a lavish text-and-sketches article appearing 
in September and October 1956, showed how stylish living quarters 
provided the ideal setting for attracting and entertaining winsome 
young women. In November 1955, Hefner initiated “Playboy After 
Hours,” which surveyed a host of entertainment establishments with 
an eye toward their romantic ambience. Overall, the Playboy picture 
of seduction stressed romance, sophistication, and pleasure. 14 

Hefner’s calls for rethinking sex repeatedly emphasized the social 
need for a “healthy heterosexuality” in America. Modern pressures 
of fashion had converged with traditional repression, he argued, to 
warp images of female beauty. Confusion about gender images had 
blurred the visual and emotional lines separating men from women 



112 


MR. PLAYBOY 


and created a kind of social neurosis. In Hefners view, a regeneration 
of vigorous sexual intercourse between men and women promised to 
restore vitality to American society. Playboy, as he stressed repeatedly, 
was “very much a heterosexual magazine.” The magazine refused to 
be “embarrassed by the male-female relationship” and pledged that 
“we will vote in favor of a heterosexual society until something better 
comes along.” 15 

In this crusade for heterosexuality, Hefner took special aim at 
womens fashion magazines as architects of androgyny. For several 
decades, he noted, they had promoted the ideal of the tall, slender, 
angular woman with small bust and thin hips. Many females emulated 
this model, but most men recoiled because it was “devoid of sex.” 
The male ideal of female attractiveness, Hefner argued, accented a 
“full figure, narrow waist, full hips, a very robust and healthy looking 
gal.” Playboy devoted itself to portraying this vision of the “fully 
feminine — round, soft, and with a maximum emphasis on the beauty 
of being female.” 16 

In Hefner s view, homosexuality joined with the fashion industry 
androgyny to construct another barrier to healthy relations between 
men and women. He was no homophobe, and in fact urged toleration 
for this sexual behavior. But, like even the most progressive figures 
in the 1950s, he saw homosexuality as an aberration, a sign of malad- 
justment. “It is the normal, healthy heterosexual thing for men to be 
interested in the full, well-rounded female,” he told one magazine. 
Why did men like to drive sports cars, wear fashionable suits, listen 
to a new stereo, and enjoy good food and drink? he asked rhetori- 
cally. “To sit in a corner with a fellow? I rather doubt it.” Playboy, he 
made clear, was devoted to “the boy-girl relationship, to heterosexual 
activity in modern society.” This provided a contrast to outdoor mens 
magazines, which recommended leaving women at home while you 
hunted, drank beer, and bonded with other men. “On a F reudian level, 
you could consider them blatantly homosexual,” he declared. 17 

Hefner elaborated in a roundtable discussion on a CBS televi- 
sion show in Chicago. He complained bitterly that fashion magazines 
had idealized the tall, thin woman — a “Vogue mannequin” type — and 
suggested another influence: 


If you want to take the next step and see how really sick its 
getting . . . You also know, and the theater in New York is very 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


113 


much involved in this, where a great deal of this concept of 
beauty comes from. This whole fashion thing comes largely 
from men. But it’s not a heterosexual concept. And I feel basi- 
cally that it is an anti-female concept. 

Another participant asked, “You mean a homosexual concept?” 
Hefner replied, “Darn right, dam right.” 18 

“The Playboy Philosophy,” the early 1960s work summarizing 
Hefners early thought on the sexual revolution, clarified this point. 
A leading sex researcher, he pointed out, had commented upon “the 
prevalence of homosexuality and perversion in the United States” 
and insisted that a greater emphasis on male-female sex provided the 
only antidote. “If we desire a healthy, heterosexual society, we must 
begin stressing heterosexual sex; otherwise, our society will remain 
sick and perverted,” Hefner agreed. So while Hefner was not anti- 
homosexual, he clearly saw Playboy’s healthy heterosexuality as an 
antidote to androgyny and gender confusion, one that promised to 
restore American vitality. 19 

Hefners notion of “clean sex” promised a healthy alternative to 
prevailing, tawdry images of vice and transgression, sin and sensa- 
tionalism. Religion, he contended, handcuffed sex to procreation 
with any escape eliciting an all-points bulletin describing the offender 
as obscene. A similarly twisted state of affairs pervaded popular wom- 
en’s magazines, as a Playboy article titled “The Pious Pornographers” 
revealed. Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan over- 
flowed with sensational articles on topics such as sexual dysfunc- 
tion, failed marriages, and scandalous affairs. This “sick, sad sex kick 
of the ladies magazines” offered readers a steady diet of “Virginal 
Wives,” “Jealousy-Crazed Mates,” and “perverts and child-molest- 
ers.” Titillation reigned supreme. “What we were trying to do was 
promote a healthier attitude toward sexuality,” Hefner explained. 
Playboy suggested that “clean sex, healthy sex in the 1950s was a 
prerequisite for a healthy society in America.” 20 

For all his passionate proclamations of sexual liberation, Hefner 
insisted that Playboy stay within the bounds of good taste. He cham- 
pioned the erotic and avoided the pornographic. Images and words 
evoking healthy sexual urges were fine, he believed, especially if they 
emitted an aura of romance, but sensational, sadistic, and prurient 
aspects of sex were out of bounds. But it was not always easy to find 



114 


MR. PLAYBOY 


the line of demarcation. When an advertiser threatened to close the 
account over some nude photographs, Hefner asked him to recon- 
sider in light of a changing sexual culture in America: 

There is a transition taking place in society today that is very 
evident in the movies and in books and magazines, too, for 
that matter. The nation is becoming more mature and able to 
discuss and view openly what was taboo ten or fifteen years 
ago . . . Playboy isn’t interested in being sensational — it never 
has been. ... If we took the sex out of Playboy, we would be 
a fraud, and we know it. At the same time we are concerned 
with staying well within the bounds of good taste. . . . However, 
treating sex in an adult manner on the one hand — and not 
overstepping the bounds of good taste, on the other — is not as 
easy a proposition as it might appear . 21 

Thus Hefner labored as a popularizer of sexual revolution in the 
postwar era. His conviction about “modern man’s need for a new, 
more realistic, rational, human, and humane sexual morality” had 
been in place long before he even dreamed of starting a magazine, 
he explained. But he used Playboy to tirelessly pursue this goal, and 
signs were appearing of “a transition from guilt, shame, and hypoc- 
risy to a new honesty, a new permissiveness, a new willingness to talk 
about sex in a frank and open way — a freedom to examine, to express, 
to enjoy .” 22 

As the old saying goes, however, a picture is worth a thousand 
words. The most celebrated element in the Playboy crusade for 
sexual liberation, of course, was visual. The “Playmate of the Month,” 
whose revealing fold-out portrait graced every issue of the magazine, 
became an American icon. As Hefner noted many years later, “The 
Centerfold, in its own way, was as much of a statement in terms of 
the sexual revolution as the ‘Playboy Philosophy .’” 23 


II 


Marilyn Monroe, in her famous nude pose against a lush backdrop 
of red velvet, adorned the first issue of Playboy as its “Sweetheart of 
the Month.” By the next issue, the feature had become the “Playmate 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


115 


of the Month” with a regular format — several photographs of an 
attractive young woman, a portion of them erotic, surrounding a nude 
fold-out centerfold in full color. It quickly became the magazine s 
signature item. At first, Hefner called upon professional models, but 
soon he began to look for another type of Playmate — fresh, wholesome 
“girls next door” from the byways of ordinary American life. Readers 
responded eagerly to this type, prompting the humorist Mort Sahl to 
quip that a whole generation of American men came of age believing 
that young women had a staple in their midsection. 

Hefner did not have to go far to secure the prototype Playmate 
of the 1950s. In the spring of 1955, he asked Charlaine Karalus, the 
magazine s subscription manager, to pose for the magazine center- 
fold. During bantering negotiations, she agreed to be photographed 
if he would buy an Addressograph machine to ease her duties at the 
office. It was an inspired agreement. Karalus, an elegant, full-figured 
blonde with healthy good looks, appeared in the July issue as “Janet 
Pilgrim.” Hefner came up with the name as a sly dig at his Puritan 
forbearers, and actually appeared in her centerfold as a tuxedoed 
figure in the background, back to the camera. This recurring hint of 
a man in the centerfold photos implied sex and seduction. Playboy 
explained its Playmate concept: 

We suppose it’s natural to think of the pulchritudinous Play- 
mates as existing in a world apart. Actually, potential Playmates 
are all around you: the new secretary at your office, the doe- 
eyed beauty who sat opposite you at lunch yesterday, the girl 
who sells you shirts and ties at your favorite store. We found 
Miss July in our own circulation department, processing sub- 
scriptions, renewals, and back copy orders. Her name is Janet 
Pilgrim and she’s as efficient as she is good looking. 24 

Reader response was so enthusiastic that Pilgrim also appeared as 
a Playmate two more times, in December 1955 and October 1956, 
establishing a record that still stands. She became something of a 
celebrity as admiring cards and letters poured into Playboy from all 
over the country. In the fall of 1956, Pilgrim s popularity became evi- 
dent when she accepted an invitation for an appearance at Dartmouth 
College. She met with an English class, was interviewed on the cam- 
pus radio station, held a press conference at the offices of the student 



116 


MR. PLAYBOY 


newspaper, and attended a faculty tea held in her honor. Playboy 
took advantage of her fame with a special advertisement. “A lifetime 
subscription to Playboy brings a personal call from Janet Pilgrim,” 
it promised; “we could think of nothing more special than to have 
Playboy’s famed Playmate of the Month call him person-to-person 
anywhere in the U.S. on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.” Thus 
was born the girl-next-door image that became the hallmark of the 
magazines centerfolds. 25 

A long tradition of pinup art existed in the United States dating 
back to the early 1900s. Around the turn of the century, the Gibson 
Girls — pen-and-ink drawings by the illustrator Charles Gibson — 
represented the height of female beauty with their lush dresses, 
tiny waists, and elaborate curled hair piled atop their heads. By the 
1920s, posters publicizing the scantily clad Ziegfeld Girls had per- 
meated popular culture while the following decades saw Esquire s 
Petty Girls — sleek, stylized drawings of nude young women by the 
artist George Petty — and Vargas Girls, lush illustrations of well- 
endowed young women by Alberto Vargas. During World War II, 
movie-star pinups of actresses such as Betty Grable also became a 
popular feature of soldiers’ and sailors’ lockers around the globe. All 
of these erotic images shared a common characteristic. They were 
highly stylized, idealized renderings of women who were enticing, 
yet unattainable. 26 

The Playmate of the Month transformed this tradition. Instead 
of focusing on movie queens or showgirls, Playboy humanized the 
female pinup by presenting young women from everyday life who (at 
least theoretically) were attainable, non-intimidating, and possessed 
of a healthy sexual appetite. The Playmates were “attractive girls that 
we find all over America,” Hefner explained to Mike Wallace in 1956. 
“In the past year, one Playmate was an airline stewardess, one a New 
York telephone operator, and one a Phi Beta Kappa.” Their typicality 
was matched by their modern attitudes. The Playboy centerfold 
appeared as an icon of sexual liberation in the 1950s, suggesting that, 
as Hefner liked to put it, “nice girls like sex, too.” 27 

Hefner described his goal in a 1956 memo to Playboy 
photographers: 


The Playmate should be posed in a natural setting, not the 
sterile surroundings of a studio. The model herself should 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


117 


look relaxed and natural. . . . Some simple activity like reading, 
writing, mixing a drink, trying on a new dress — the variations 
are endless — will add tremendously to the appeal. . . . Obvi- 
ously the Playmates should be attractive in both face and 
figure, but more specifically, we like a healthy, intelligent 
American look — a young lady that looks like she might be a 
very efficient secretary or an undergrad at Vassar. We prefer 
fresh, new faces ... a natural beauty. 

In a letter that same year, he explained to a corporate client 
that his magazine featured “the freshest, most all-American look- 
ing girls we can find.” The Playmates had become, he argued, 
“the photographic dream girls for a large part of our male 
population.” 28 

The stories accompanying the photos reinforced this natural, real- 
istic appeal. They noted the Playmate’s job or activities and discussed 
her interests, hobbies, and attitudes. This “personalizes the girl; she’s 
not just a rag a’ bone and hank o’ hair. She’s a living, breathing human 
being,” Hefner explained. “Playmates are real people and they are 
one of the good things in life that you can enjoy when you get up 
there and work hard and play hard.” The whole girl-next-door idea, 
he noted later, “was intended to make the Playmates more a part of 
real life for our readers.” 29 

At the same time, important elements of fantasy went into the 
presentation of these “real” young women. The photos were artfully 
posed to create the illusion of being unposed. The texts accompanying 
the photos were verbal creations (often highly exaggerated) designed 
to enhance the “natural” quality of the Playmates’ lives and under- 
score their sexual interest. Thus Playboy subtly created an erotic 
vision. After all, the vast majority of young American women were 
not quite that pretty, that healthy, that well-endowed, or, to be 
honest, quite that enthusiastic about sex in an age of crude birth 
control measures. The Playmate as represented, a workaday yet 
fetching young woman who joyfully sought sex, was the fantasy of 
the girl next door. 

Playmate features in the 1950s embodied this mix of the real and 
the unreal. They were about six pages long, including a double-page 
spread that expanded to a three-page foldout in 1956 as the word 
“centerfold” entered the popular lexicon. The photographs themselves 



118 


MR. PLAYBOY 


were relatively modest. They always featured some kind of drapery 
at the waist or were taken from the side or back to avoid revealing 
the pubic area. Breasts were bare but seldom showed nipples. Brief 
stories described the Playmate as an actress, salesgirl, student, wait- 
ress, legal secretary, or in some other kind of normal occupation. 
Overall, a relaxed, lighthearted, spontaneous atmosphere prevailed. 
While sex in traditional mens magazines like Esquire had a leering 
quality “like the old goats who chased showgirls in their cartoons,” 
as one Playboy staffer put it, Hefners centerfolds projected a play- 
ful, even innocent quality. As a real, attainable female who was 
nonetheless a two-dimensional image on a page, gazing directly at the 
male reader with an alluring smile, the Playmate offered a promise 
of sexual fulfillment. 30 

Two Playmates typified the centerfold feature during the 
early years of Playboy. A perky platinum blonde named Lisa 
Winters graced the magazines pages as the December 1956 
Playmate, and the text described her as “the kind of fresh, young 
beauty that photographers all across the country are constantly 
looking for.” It noted that she loved to read and was partial to 
the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the fiction of Poe, 
Hemingway, and Kipling. Ms. Winters, a self-described “home 
girl,” liked plain food such as spaghetti and chocolate ice cream 
and preferred young men who had a sense of humor and avoided 
pettiness. The pictorial featured five black-and-white photos of 
her fully clothed in various settings in her hometown, two color 
photos of her nude wearing a sheer nightgown, and a centerfold 
shot of her climbing out of a swimming pool, her breasts care- 
fully hidden behind her arm with her face upturned to soak up 
the sunshine. 31 

Virginia Gordon appeared in a January 1959 pictorial titled 
“Girl Who Wears Glasses.” Playboy confessed that the old notion 
of librarians as killjoy spinsters, “as well as a Dorothy Parker cou- 
plet about girls who wear glasses, have hitherto prevented us from 
scouting the libraries of our land in search of gatefold glamour. A little 
unbiased cogitation, of course, should have led us to the conclusion 
that there’s no reason why a librarian can’t be as lovely as any other 
lass, as dewy as a decimal system, as stacked as the stacks she super- 
vises.” The text noted that Ms. Gordon enjoyed “water sports, chess 
and charades, and she admits to a secret longing to own a Corvette.” 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


119 


Four black-and-white photos showed her fully clothed at work, while 
the color centerfold depicted her nude, drying her hair with a bath 
towel marked “His,” with one leg raised demurely to screen her waist 
while her elbows carefully masked the tips of her breasts. 32 

While the Playmates captured a restless erotic energy emerging 
in the early stages of the 1950s sexual revolution, they also served 
another important purpose. The publisher deployed his battalions 
of All-American girls to fend off what he perceived as a looming 
threat in postwar society: women seeking to entrap men in marriage. 
The domestic ideal of family togetherness, so dear to the heart of 
Eisenhower’s America, seemed little more than a prison to Hefner. 
He urged young men to a spirited resistance. The Playboy agenda of 
sexual liberation, in part, aimed to separate the pleasure of sex from 
the entangling obligations of the woman-dominated family. 

The very first issue of the magazine launched an attack on female 
manipulation of marriage in America. Burt Zollo’s “Miss Gold-digger 
of 1953” denounced alimony as a weapon used by greedy women to 
strip men of their livelihood. The courts, ignoring the fact that modem 
divorce often was no ones fault, routinely ordered ex-husbands to pay 
ex-wives up to half of their salaries for support. A long list of outra- 
geous cases should make men aware that “All-American womanhood 
has descended on alimony as natural heritage.” Zollo sharpened the 
attack on marriage a few months later in a piece titled “Open Season 
on Bachelors.” Modern women sought economic and social security 
above all else, he argued, and were “perfectly willing to crush man’s 
adventurous, freedom-loving spirit to get it.” The evidence could be 
seen in “the sorry, regimented husbands trudging down every woman- 
dominated street in this woman-dominated land.” With male freedom 
at risk, Zollo argued, the true playboy must “enjoy the pleasures the 
female has to offer without becoming emotionally involved.” 33 

Throughout the 1950s, Playboy continued to mock traditional 
notions of wedded bliss. In 1955, for example, a tongue-in-cheek 
article, titled “A Vote for Polygamy,” described monogamous 
marriage as a historical anomaly. This practice had been brought 
into Western civilization by barbarians who attacked the Boman 
Empire, its author contended, and “has since been rejected by 
Mohammedans, Buddhists, and residents of Southern California.” 
With “varietistic” males naturally seeking many sexual partners and 
women rapidly outnumbering them in the general population, the 



120 


MR. PLAYBOY 


future was clear: “a return to an older and more practical form of 
social-sex organization — polygamy.” In 1958, Playboy surveyed its 
readership and reported the mix of husbands and bachelors in this 
fashion: “Approximately half of playboy’s readers (46.8%) are free 
men and the other half are free in spirit only.” 34 

Hefner contributed to this skeptical critique of marriage. 
Throughout the decade, he suggested that men should marry later 
rather than sooner, if at all. When a reporter asked if he would want his 
sister to marry a Playboy editor, he fired back, “I don’t want my edi- 
tors marrying anyone and getting a lot of foolish notions in their heads 
about ‘togetherness,’ home, family, and all that jazz.” He believed that 
social pressures forced people to marry too early and offered himself 
as an example. “I had never really been out on my own, never really 
been free, which is maybe a part of why this independent, free spirit 
thing is as important to me as it is,” he said. When his marriage ended 
a bit later, he celebrated his “freedom to do what I want to do, when 
I want to do it, and to be able to go where I want to go, when I want 
to go there.” 35 

In “The Playboy Philosophy,” published in the early 1960s, Hefner 
explained his objections to marriage American-style. “The extensive 
Puritanism that still exists in American society with its moral prohibi- 
tions against sex outside of wedlock, is one of the powerful pressures 
leading to early marriages,” he claimed. Heartache often resulted. 
A more relaxed, realistic acceptance of “a justifiable place for sex 
outside of marriage” would help, as would greater sensitivity to the 
emotional needs of young adults. “The typical male selects a mate and 
marries her — supposedly for a lifetime — before he has fully devel- 
oped, himself, into the adult human being he will be for the rest of 
his years. It’s no better than a game of marital blind-man’s bluff, it 
seems to me,” he wrote. “If, on the other hand, those first years were 
devoted to work and play, as a single adult — then when marriage did 
come, a young man would be far better prepared for it.” 36 

Hefner’s notions of sexual liberation struck a chord with many male 
readers in postwar America. Playboy ’ s fun-filled visions of attractive, 
willing females and unfettered sexual pleasure piqued the imagina- 
tion of young bachelors operating in an atmosphere of material abun- 
dance. The Playmate, in contrast to the grasping woman who had 
secured a husband merely to provide economic and social support, 



THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS 


121 


also offered a fantasy of sexual adventure to older men already caught 
up in the gray-flannel world of family and children, station wagons 
and backyard barbecues. Hefners vision of sexual revolution in the 
1950s appealed to male angst as well as male freedom, frustrations 
as well as desire. 

Ultimately, however, Playboy’s eroticism promoted a larger cul- 
tural development. It helped drive the final nails into the coffin of 
traditional Victorian morality, with its notions of self-control, delayed 
gratification, and character formation. It encouraged instead a new 
idea that happiness came from sating appetites and gratifying desires. 
This culture of self-fulfillment had emerged during the early 1900s 
but flowered dramatically after World War II. As one historian has 
described this process, an old-fashioned, Protestant ethos of “sal- 
vation through self-denial” gave way to a new mind-set “stressing 
self-realization in this world — an ethos characterized by an almost 
obsessive concern with psychic and physical health defined in sweep- 
ing terms.” Hefners ideology of sexual liberation played a crucial 
role in Hefners important historical shift. The material abundance 
of 1950s America — “a period of growth and affluence unequaled in 
the past,” Hefner called it — had created a new appreciation for life’s 
pleasures. In Hefner’s words, “with the social revolution has come a 
sexual revolution as well.” 37 

The Playboy fantasy depicted unfettered individuals romping 
across a social landscape seeking, and finding, physical pleasure and 
emotional fulfillment. It presented images of sophisticated young 
men and fetching young women enjoying exuberant sexual experi- 
ences, unencumbered by the drudgery of marriage. Hefner reassured 
readers that in the modern culture of self-fulfillment, sex could be 
“quite properly, an end in itself. And if sex can serve as a means 
of self-realization, this is purpose enough and justification enough 
for its existence.” It was the quintessential expression of what one 
social scientist, writing in the 1950s, termed “fun morality.” In the 
transforming morality of modern America, she argued, “fun, from 
having been suspect, if not taboo, has tended to become obligatory. 
Instead of feeling guilty for having too much fun, one is inclined to 
feel ashamed if one does not have enough.” 38 

Hefner’s fantasy of sexual liberation embodied this new out- 
look. “I think the magazine includes portions of the real world and 



122 


MR. PLAYBOY 


portions of the world of dreams, as well,” he observed. “And I think 
it is probably a good thing to include both. Without our dreams and 
aspirations, life would be a rather drab affair.” Happily for Hefners 
readers, the Playboy agenda for sexual revolution promised a world 
that would be anything but drab . 39 



7 


An Abundant Life 


T he encouragement of pleasure, Hugh Hefner believed, lay at 
the heart of Playboy. The sexual element was obvious, of course, 
but he always added another theme when discussing his mag- 
azine s agenda — a desire to boost “the benefits of materialism” as 
another way “to put some of the play and pleasure back into life.” 
Hefner believed that the enjoyment of material abundance, like sex, 
had aroused guilt for generations in a culture carrying the burden of 
Puritan tradition. He wanted to change that. While money could not 
buy happiness it could be used, he contended, “to enhance life — 
for oneself and others — and that’s what we tried to promote in the 
magazine .” 1 

Hefner used his “pleasure primer” to promote upward mobility, 
worldly success, and material prosperity, creating a full-fledged 
endorsement of the consumer-goods explosion in the post-World 
War II American economy. “People had money for the first time 
in their lives. They were coming out of the war. There were many 
new things to own. People had more leisure,” Vic Lownes explained. 


123 



124 


MR. PLAYBOY 


“The living standards of the country, the productivity of the country 
was zooming upwards, and Playboy was a remarkable reflection of all 
this. The sexuality, the materialism, it all came at the same time.” 2 
Instructing ambitious young men on how to choose from among the 
dizzying array of products made available by this dynamic economy, 
Playboy helped them navigate through the unfamiliar sea of mate- 
rial prosperity facing middle-class America. In the same way that 
etiquette books had taught prosperous Americans genteel manners 
in the nineteenth century, Playboy served as a guidebook for enjoy- 
ing the consumer cornucopia of the 1950s. Monthly, Hefner insisted 
that the savoring of abundance, like the enjoyment of sex, prom- 
ised to remove older strictures of self-denial and increase human 
happiness. 


I 

The first issue of Playboy enticed readers with visions of material 
plenty. A section titled “The Men s Shop” offered a calfskin-covered 
ice bucket “trimmed in high polished aluminum,” a mahogany 
“Silent Valet” for hanging suits, a portable bar with “black Formica 
top trimmed in red, green, ivory, or chartreuse Duran plastic,” and 
a stylish brass coat and hat rack. Soon “Playboys Bazaar,” a self- 
styled “buying guide,” appeared to display the latest consumer items 
available to the fashionably prosperous. Indeed, in a host of ways, 
the magazine promoted the consumption of fashionable clothing and 
good food, sporty cars and fine liquor, urbane leisure and hip enter- 
tainment as the essence of the good life in modem America. 3 

This was no voice crying in the wilderness. As the historian Lizabeth 
Cohen has noted, a full-blown “Consumers’ Republic” emerged in 
the 1950s from a “shared commitment on the part of policymakers, 
business and labor leaders, and civic groups to put mass consumption 
at the center of their plans for a prosperous postwar America.” This 
project shaped everything from social aspiration to residential pat- 
terns, advertising strategies to notions of citizenship, market maneu- 
vers to political formulations. But this list of contributors contained 
another important type — cultural figures who articulated how the 
pursuit of material goods brought happiness. Hugh Hefner stood at 
or near the front of this line. 4 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


125 


Playboy guided readers through the new postwar society of 
consumer abundance, pointing out opportunities for enjoyment and 
warning of pitfalls. Its features, advertisements, and symbolic mes- 
sages presented the array of goods available to successful young men. 
Then, even more importantly, it encouraged them to partake as a 
way to achieve joyous fulfillment. “With increasing affluence, how 
one spends ones leisure time and finds value in it is more important 
than ever,” Hefner noted of this new era. Benjamin Franklin had 
written a guidebook for coping with life when a more frugal, work- 
oriented ethic was essential to survival in a frontier society. But now 
“Playboy came along and offered a new set of ethical values for an 
urban society.” The magazine s editorial message was succinct: “Enjoy 
yourself.” So at the same time Hefner labored as a pamphleteer of 
the sexual revolution in the 1950s, he also served as a popular moral- 
ist for the consumer revolution, busily reassuring his audience that it 
was okay to feast on the fruits of materialism. 5 

Playboy’s campaign for consumption focused on several themes. It 
stressed the importance of style in purchasing and enjoying goods as 
it nurtured an appreciation of the finer things in life among its young 
male readers, many of whom were facing the conundrums of con- 
sumer choice for the first time. As the magazine noted of its typical 
reader in 1955, “You can find him at the theatre, a concert, or small 
jazz spot. He is in the midst of the biggest buying spree of his life. 
Cars, cameras, and hi-fi cabinets. Clothes, cognac, and cigarettes.” 6 

Playboy directed that buying spree, becoming an arbiter of taste for 
young men on the make in an American land of plenty. “The Basic Bar” 
provided directions on how to equip a bar in order to “serve the right 
drinks, in the right way, at home.” “The Compleat Fidelitarian” and 
“The Stereo Scene” offered pointers on the latest developments in 
hi-fi equipment,” while “The Verities of Vino” explained the proto- 
cols of wine appreciation. On the automobile front, “The Compleat 
Sports Car Stable” surveyed the fastest, most elegant American and 
European cars on the road. “The Playboy Sports Car” invited readers 
to join in the planning of the perfect sports car for today s prosperous, 
sophisticated young man. Playboy took the role of consumer adviser 
seriously, so much so that occasionally it poked fun at itself. In 1955, 
for example, it offered the facetious “Mixing the Perfect Martini,” 
where a maniacally fastidious butler poured gin and dry vermouth 
from a test tube to get the precise number of cubic centimeters, 



126 


MR. PLAYBOY 


measured olives with a caliper to get an exact millimeter reading, 
stirred the drink exactly twenty-five revolutions, and twisted a lemon 
peel over the cocktail for effect even though no juice came out. 7 

One of the most popular Playboy consumer features appeared in 
1956. Over two issues, “Playboys Penthouse Apartment” took readers 
on a tour of the ultimate bachelor pad, dispensing advice on how 
to create a sophisticated urban apartment, “playboy has designed, 
planned, and decorated from the floor up, a penthouse apartment for 
the urban bachelor — a man who enjoys good living, a sophisticated 
connoisseur of the lively arts, of food and drink and congenial com- 
panions of both sexes. A man very much, perhaps, like you.” A series 
of color sketches showed views of a sleek Scandinavian-style din- 
ing room, state-of-the-art kitchen with dishwasher and glass-domed 
oven, spacious living room with fireplace and elaborate stereo system, 
elegant home office, and master bedroom suite with bedside controls 
to operate lights, drapes, and music throughout the apartment and 
a bathroom complete with a giant sunken tub and shower. Skylights, 
an illuminated aquarium, recessed Swedish fireplace, and a cork 
tile floor added to the apartments “sense of masculine richness and 
excitement.” Abstract art adorned the walls, a plethora of large win- 
dows allowed abundant light, and chic modern furniture by Noguchi, 
Bruno Mathesson, Saarinen, Eames, and Knoll graced the rooms. 
The apartment appeared “a bachelor haven of virile good looks, a 
place styled for a man of taste and sophistication. This is his place, to 
fit his moods, suit his needs, reflect his personality.” 8 

The subject of clothing occupied a special place in Playboy’s ongo- 
ing tutorial on consumer purchasing. Throughout the 1950s the mag- 
azine counseled readers on the newest male fashion trends and what 
to wear in every type of social situation. “The Well-Clad Undergrad” 
advised the well-dressed young man on campus, while the ubiquitous 
Blake Butherford addressed myriad fashion issues throughout the 
decade with his preference for Continental styling. Throughout 
such informational articles, of course, Playboy gently mentored its 
audience on appropriate tastes and standards. A 1959 article on for- 
malwear, for instance, instructed readers on how to choose “elegant, 
good-looking formal attire” for warm-weather occasions: 


A black or white dinner jacket is, of course, still correct for 
summer or tropical wear. . . . Formal trousers, of course, are 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


127 


never anything save midnight blue or black. . . . Black patent 
leather or dull calf shoes or pumps are always worn. Your hose, 
of course, should always be black. ... No time of year puts 
more emphasis on your formal wardrobe than the season com- 
ing up. Why? Because this June, July, and August, the country 
clubs, yacht clubs, beach clubs, and just plain clubs are going 
[strong], . . . Also, if your vacation plans carry you to a resort, 
large hotel, or aboard a cruise ship, you’ll find that a dinner 
jacket is mandatory for evening wear. 

Despite the element of fantasy — one wonders how many Playboy 
readers actually frequented yacht clubs or cruise ships — the magazine’s 
advice reflected a new sensibility in the middle class. Consumption 
demanded a modicum of style, or it became little more than a crass 
hoarding of goods, a crude triumph of quantity over quality. 9 

Advertising in Playboy reinforced the editorial message of stylish 
buying. In fact, the magazine’s advertising policy guaranteed an aura 
of upscale consumption. Determined to distance his publication from 
the normal run of girlie and pulp magazines, Hefner rejected ads for 
products that emphasized tawdry or proletarian themes. He spurned 
over 75 percent of advertisers who sought to peddle such items as 
“guns, correspondence courses, hair restorers, and trusses” because 
they failed to comport with the desired image of prosperity and suc- 
cess. “We agreed early on to accept only advertising that seemed to 
be consistent with the editorial attitude of the publication,” Hefner 
wrote to a company whose ads he had turned down. 10 

Hefner stuck to his guns, even though it meant a loss of prof- 
its in the short term. In 1955, the magazine landed its first major 
advertising account with Springmaid sheets. The initial ad depicted 
an eloping couple crawling down a ladder as the buxom bride-to- 
be proclaimed to her flustered young man struggling to balance a 
hope chest, “Certainly we’re taking it . . . they’re Springmaid sheets 
and I have a full chest, too.” Playboy continued pursuing mainline 
advertisers, and after several years of limited success — many compa- 
nies were skittish about identifying with such a risque publication — it 
began to reel them in more and more as the magazine prospered. 11 

By the late 1950s, Hefner had successfully linked Playboy to 
upscale consumption. The June 1959 issue was typical. Advertisements 
appeared for over twenty items of male apparel, including After 



128 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Six dinner jackets, Frank Brothers clothes, and “the cool comfort 
of Hush Puppies.” More than ten liquor ads appeared, including 
Walker Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Bacardi rum, and Bainier Old 
Stock Ale. On the transportation front, readers came upon ads for 
BMW, Autotourist European Bental Cars, and the Silhouette Mark 
II sailing boat. 

Home amenities also abounded, with promotions for every- 
thing from Crosswinds House beach towels and robes to Scintilla 
Satin Bedsheets, Lektrostat Kit record cleaners to Mansfield 
Holiday II 8-mm. cameras, Leslie Becord Backs to the Electro-Voice 
Musicaster (an outdoor “high-fidelity speaker system for relaxed 
enjoyment at the patio or pool”). Personal accessory plugs included 
the Bonson Electric Shaver, Max Factor crew-cut hair dressing, 
Bogers “Bocket Flame” cigarette lighter, Merrin Gold Jewelry, and 
English Leather aftershave and toiletries. Ads focusing on romance 
promoted such items as Coty Perfume (“Nothing makes a woman 
more feminine to a man”) and the Batch Book, “a new and modem 
address book that lets you list every pertinent detail — the surest way 
to avoid social errors.” 

Playboy iced the commercial cake with advertising for a new 
consumer appurtenance: the credit card, which promised added con- 
venience and buying power. It claimed that the Diners Club credit 
card “is nearly universal in its use. It can be used to buy thousands of 
items and services — clothing, dinner, hotel rooms, boats, liquor, tires, 
cars, plane trips, luggage, stenographic services, recordings, cameras, 
fishing equipment, gifts, flowers — many, many t hings.” 12 

By urging its readers to buy “many, many things,” Playboy emerged 
at the center of a consumer bonanza in 1950s America. It even estab- 
lished a special service in 1957 to assist readers with purchasing goods. 
Interested consumers could contact the “Playboy Beader Service,” 
which would then provide “the local shopping information you need 
to purchase any of the hundreds of interesting items you find featured 
in playboy (Playmates excepted). All you have to do is check the 
item listed in the Index of Advertisers in which you are interested.” 
Always keen to underline the pleasure connection between sex and 
abundance, the magazine noted that this service was supervised by 
Janet Pilgrim, who was pictured painting footsteps on a floor as a pair 
of anonymous mens legs stepped along in the prints. 13 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


129 


Hefner correctly sensed, however, that American consumer society, 
as it evolved to a more advanced stage in the postwar era, involved 
more than just buying goods. It was intimately connected to a larger 
ethos of pleasure, leisure, and entertainment. Uninhibited consump- 
tion depended on the emotional joys of self-fulfillment, not the moral 
satisfactions of self-denial. Playboy, in a host of 1950s articles and 
features, encouraged just such a creed of gratification. 

Recreation took the lead. “Playboy on Poker” explored winning 
strategies for the card game, while “The Art of Travel” taught inex- 
perienced travelers how to move about the country and the world 
“with special ease and grace.” It explained guidebooks, travel agents, 
how to assemble an itinerary that suited individual tastes, and how 
to evaluate tour packages. “Invitation to Yachting: Playboys Guide to 
Fun Afloat” perused luxury watercraft and their deployment for the 
weekend sailor. Advertisements plugged a host of nightclubs for 
the sophisticated young man and his date: Chicago favorites such as 
Morton s, Sardis East, Blackhawk, and the Cloisters, and out-of-town 
nightspots such as Rendezvous of the Stars in L.A. and the Sands in 
Las Vegas. 14 

Musical entertainment featured prominently in Playboy’s recipe 
for recreation. Hefner was a longtime fan of jazz, and promotion 
of this genre abounded. “Bird” described the saxophone virtuoso 
Charlie Parker and his fantastic, wailing performance style. The 
noted jazz critic Leonard Leather penned many features, including 
“Ella Meets the Duke,” a look at icons Ella Litzgerald and Duke 
Ellington, and “Sinatra,” an analysis of the most influential vocalist of 
the era. The Playboy Jazz Poll debuted in 1957, with readers voting 
annually on the best singers and instrumentalists at every spot in the 
typical band. Some twenty thousand ballots selected such luminaries 
as Stan Kenton as bandleader, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie 
on trumpet, J. J. Johnson and Jack Teagarden on trombone, Benny 
Goodman on clarinet, Dave Brubeck on piano, Lionel Hampton on 
vibes, and Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond on sax. Sinatra and 
Litzgerald won out as male and female vocalists. 15 

Sports regularly moved into the Playboy spotlight, especially 
Hefners two favorites, boxing and college football. The magazine 
offered an annual ring preview such as “Boxing 1956,” which weighed 
the prospect of fighters like Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, Lloyd 



130 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Patterson, and Sugar Ray Robinson. In September 1957, Playboy 
introduced its first college football forecast as Anson “Smoky” Mount, 
who had been running the College Rureau, took over the job for 
the next fifteen years. He proved himself to be one of the most accu- 
rate football prognosticators in the country as “Pigskin Preview” 
became an annual feature. Throughout, Playboy seized every chance 
to connect sport with consumption, promoting an array of sporting 
goods including Abercrombie and Fitch golf clubs, Hedland water 
skis, and skin-diving masks and underwater cameras. 16 

Movies, another Hefner pastime, attracted much attention in 
Playboy. “Playboy After Hours” reviewed the latest American and 
European film releases while articles on movies, actors, and the 
Hollywood scene cropped up regularly. “The Horror of It All” explored 
the popular appeal of Hollywood horror films, while “Chaplin: The 
Chronicle of a Man and His Genius” examined the career of the bril- 
liant comedic actor. Rilly Wilder, Hollywood’s hottest writer-producer- 
director, received a close analysis in “Charming Rilly.” Attention also 
focused on theater. In December 1956, two veteran critics — Wolcott 
Gibbs from the New Yorker, and Ward Morehouse from Theatre 
Arts — offered their assessments of “Rroadway: The Season Just Past, 
the Season to Come.” 17 

Playboy fed its readers a nourishing diet of humor. Cartoons, again 
reflecting the publishers own taste and background, emerged as a 
magazine stalwart. Early contributors such as Jack Cole and Gardner 
Rea were joined by a new cadre of hip funsters by mid-decade. In 
1956, Shel Silverstein brought his irreverent sensibility to the maga- 
zine with a series of globetrotting cartoons, one of which pictured him 
talking to a stem butler at Ruckingham Palace, who said, “I believe 
I can say with assurance, sir, that Princess Margaret will not be inter- 
ested in appearing as January’s Playmate of the Month.” In August 
1958, Playboy introduced “The Sick Little World of Jules Feiffer,” 
describing the cartoonist as someone with “more than a touch of the 
psychoanalyst and the social critic in his makeup.” Feiffer special- 
ized in visually minimalist, conversation-heavy encounters between 
men and women that pointed out human foibles and hypocrisies. The 
grotesque, macabre work of Gahan Wilson also became a Playboy 
favorite. A typical cartoon depicted a disheveled scientist in a lab coat 
straining to hold a laboratory door shut against a giant, multicolored 
blob pushing it open, as he told a superior, “It turns out, well have 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


131 


no trouble producing the new drug in large quantities, sir!” Hefner 
worked with all the cartoonists, particularly inspiring the Babs and 
Shirley series — it featured a pair of single, sexually adventurous 
roommates — drawn by the cartoonist Al Stine. 18 

Playboy’s growing reputation for presenting high-quality fiction 
moved down the same path. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1957, 
“Some of the best short fiction written in America today is being 
published in Playboy. These short stories are gutty and imaginative, 
skillfully written, and — perhaps most important — experimental.” 
Indeed, writers such as John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Arthur 
C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, P. G. Wodehouse, and Charles Beaumont 
appeared in its pages throughout the late 1950s. Yet much of the 
writing fit more comfortably into an entertainment than a literary 
mode. The magazine presented morsels of fiction that were usually 
digested easily, providing a greater portion of pleasure than thought. 
Typically, it described the lead fictional piece in January 1958 as “a 
yarn that has all the elements of exciting story telling — suspense, 
ironic humor, a pip of a plot, and a twist ending — written with flair 
and flavor.” The same issue also contained the magazine’s annual 
$1,000 prize for fiction, which it awarded to “the past years most 
entertaining story.” 19 

Playboy s promotion of a leisure culture of consumer self- 
fulfillment went beyond the abstract. Throughout the 1950s, Hefners 
enterprise cashed in on the pleasure-oriented message of the maga- 
zine. It developed a multifaceted merchandising campaign — clothing, 
albums, books, personal accessories — devoted to the enjoyment of 
abundance. By 1957, a leatherette Playboy Binder for collecting 
issues of the magazine and Playboy cufflinks had appeared along with 
three books: The Third Playboy Annual, Playboy’s Party Jokes, and 
Playboy’s Ribald Classics. Soon neckties, tie tacks, bracelets, sport 
shirts, sweaters, playing cards, and bar accessories came forward, all 
adorned with the magazine s rabbit head logo. By 1959 a line of jazz 
albums, the Playboy Model Agency, and Playboy Tours joined the 
list. Hefner also branched out with a syndicated television show and 
a national chain of nightclubs. In much the same way that the postwar 
Walt Disney Company utilized synergy to meld movies, television, 
merchandising, and theme parks into an entertainment empire, 
Playboy, Inc., integrated various projects into a cohesive enterprise 
to promote its vision of leisure, pleasure, and material abundance. 20 



132 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Not all Hefners expansion activities were successful, however. 
Playboys growing profits inspired him to launch a satire magazine 
titled Trump in late 1956, but sales lagged badly. Other money leaks 
opened around the same time. Hefner had invested a large amount of 
funds in the new offices on Ohio Street when his banker unexpectedly 
pulled his line of credit. With no working capital, a financial crisis 
ensued. Hefner took strong measures: cutting 25 percent from all 
executive salaries, giving up his salary entirely, discontinuing Trump, 
and temporarily giving up 25 percent of his company’s stock to help 
secure a bank loan for $250,000. As he confessed in July 1957, “This 
has been a rough six months — months of difficult decision and of 
payment for some wrong decisions in the past.” 21 

But the setback was only temporary. The magazine righted itself by 
the end of 1957, secured a major national distributor, and continued 
its long-term trajectory of growth. Playboy and Hefner steadily estab- 
lished themselves as symbols of the new prosperity, and nowhere did 
this appear more clearly than in a successful campaign to link plea- 
sure with upward social mobility. 


II 

In April 1958, Playboy proudly reported the results of a study of 
American magazine readership. Conducted by Daniel Starch & Staff 
and published in the annual Consumer Magazine Report, the survey 
assembled economic and social statistics on the readers of all major 
magazines in the country. It concluded that Playboy had a younger, 
more affluent, and better-educated audience than any other of the 
fifty magazines surveyed, jostling with the New Yorker and U. S. News 
and World Report in many categories. Its readers not only led the 
pack in spending on travel, automobiles, liquor, and tobacco but 
bought more “electric coffee makers, food mixers, fans, irons, and 
toasters.” Its typical reader was “at the peak period of purchasing” 
and highly attuned to success, Playboy noted proudly. As the maga- 
zine concluded, “It’s gratifying to know that this constellation of attri- 
butes, this orientation of the personality, is possessed by the men who 
are — statistically — the leaders in their liking for, and ability to attain, 
the good things of this life.” 22 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


133 


Hefner immediately began featuring the Starch Report in 
advertising his magazine, launching a campaign around the familiar 
slogan, “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?” According to the ads, 
the Starch survey “shows the average Playboy reader has a higher 
income than the reader of any other mens magazine. The Playboy 
reader is younger, too. 75.5% of all Playboy readers are between 
18 and 34, the acquisitive age when every purchase is a brisk step 
ahead.” Ads stressed readers’ extensive education, high professional 
and business standing, taste for liquor, fine cars, travel, clothes, and 
entertainment. In sum, the typical reader was successful and poised 
to consume: “Although they’re younger — the median age of the 
Playboy reader is 28 — they have a higher household income than 
the readers of any other men’s magazine. And Playboy ranks highest 
of all men’s magazines in consumer statistics for tobacco, beer, whis- 
key, wine, wearing apparel, photographic equipment, automobiles, 
and radios.” 23 

Clearly, Hefner had achieved one of his fondest goals by the late 
1950s — to make Playboy synonymous with a modern ethos of pros- 
perity and social attainment. The Starch Report seemed to prove his 
contention that pleasure-seeking paved the road not to dissipation 
but to worldly success. Now Hefner sought to cement his victory by 
addressing one of the most publicized cultural upsurges of the era. 

The “Reat Generation” had attracted much attention by the late 
1950s for its posture of detached, cool, hipster alienation. Led by 
writers and poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the 
movement disdained the bland conformity of middle-class, suburban 
life and celebrated primal experience, drugs, and personal freedom. 
Playboy covered the Reats as well as any magazine in the country. 
It published a 1958 symposium on “The Reat Mystique,” exploring 
“aspects of the new nihilism — frozen-faced, far out, devoid of nor- 
mal meaning” — and analyzing the emotional deadness resulting 
from “the great triumvirate disease of the American male — Passivity, 
Anxiety, Roredom.” Kerouac himself probed “The Origins of the 
Reat Generation,” suggesting that the movement he had christened 
came out of a revulsion against middle-class norms, a search for genu- 
ine emotional experience, a fondness for popular culture icons like 
the Marx brothers and the Three Stooges, and an indigenous “old 
American Whoopee.” 24 



134 


MR. PLAYBOY 


In one sense, Playboy tried to co-opt the movement. It presented 
Yvette Vickers in the July 1959 issue as the “Beat Playmate” who hung 
out at hip coffeehouses and clubs in Los Angeles exchanging ideas 
and discontent with like-minded souls. “She’s interested in serious 
acting, ballet, the poetry of Dylan Thomas,” noted the text. “She 
has strong opinions and is more than a bit of a rebel, frowning prettily 
on conformity.” The centerfold photograph depicted her lying on her 
stomach on a sofa, nude from the waist down, wearing only a man’s 
shirt. With a frazzled look on her face, an empty bottle of wine, a full 
ashtray, and an open book of poetry sitting next to her on the floor, 
she reached down to spin albums on a hi-fi. 25 

Mainly, however, Hefner made the Beats a foil for his efforts to 
define the Playboy audience. While sharing their discontent with 
the dowdy, “square” aspects of traditional American values, he found 
their style appalling. Disillusionment, drugs, and despair had little 
kinship with the Playboy ideal of sophisticated style, social achieve- 
ment, and material prosperity. So Hefner coined a phrase to describe 
his readership and its effort to reform and revitalize, not reject, main- 
stream American society, “playboy has become, in its first five years, 
the voice of what might be aptly called the Upbeat Generation,” he 
announced in 1958. 26 

Hefner returned to this phrase again and again in discussing his 
loyal, and growing, audience. “When the Beat Generation became 
a cause celebre and we reported on it, and Kerouac wrote for us, 
I made a case for what I called the Upbeat Generation,” he recalled 
years later. Instead of dropping out of society, the Upbeat Generation 
sought to “embrace the play and pleasure aspects of life along with 
the work. So we were rejecting the notion of conformity, but turning 
life into a celebration that incorporated capitalism.” 27 

In a private letter, Hefner asserted that if Playboy “is to truly be a 
much-needed rebel voice for the Upbeat Generation — then it’s got to 
holler long and loud about all those sacred cows” of sexual repression 
and asceticism. In a radio interview, he suggested that while the Beat 
Generation had attracted much publicity, a “much larger portion of 
the same generation is also equally unwilling to conform to the old 
ideas and ideals, but wants to do something about it — and we refer 
to them sometimes as the Upbeat Generation. These are the guys for 
whom Playboy has meaning. We suggest that life can be an awful lot 
of fun, if you work hard and play hard, too.” 28 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


135 


In a long statement to a Chicago magazine, Hefner embedded the 
Upbeat Generation in a broader reading of American history. After 
World War II, he contended, many people had moved to the suburbs 
and become obsessed with security and conformity. 

But now from behind the generation of static, controlled people 
came a new generation. We now have two generations — one 
behind each other — with the biggest gap between them of 
any other two generations in the history of this country. I’m 
convinced that the present generation, we like to call it for 
reasons of promotion the Upbeat Generation, is our true sal- 
vation. And Playboy fits that generation more than any other 
magazine. 29 

Ultimately, the agenda of the Upbeat Generation represented a 
revamping of the old American creed of opportunity and mobility. 
Playboy’s message expressed a “strong belief in the wonderful 
opportunities that exist in this country if a person is willing to work 
to achieve something and make something of himself,” Hefner 
wrote to a friend. “ Playboy says to its readers, the world is a wonder- 
ful place; enjoy it, live it to the hilt, work hard and play hard, and you 
will make this a better world for yourself and for those around you.” 
He was confident of victory, telling a reporter, “Kerouac’s got a few 
beat guys over in his comer, but we’ve got all the rest.” 30 

In 1959, Hefner hosted an event that seemed to celebrate the 
vitality of the Upbeat Generation. The Playboy Jazz Festival took 
shape as a gala concert that gathered the biggest jazz luminaries in 
America for three days of performances. Victor Lownes undertook 
the organization and promotion of the event and originally booked it 
at Soldier Field. Then the city fathers reneged on the agreement 
because of pressure from the local Roman Catholic Church, which 
denounced any city affiliation with Playboy. After receiving much 
support in the local press, Hefner and Lownes were able to secure a 
new venue at Chicago Stadium. 31 

From August 7 to 9, a who’s who of American jazz took the outdoor 
stage at the stadium: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, 
Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman 
Hawkins, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson, and many others. Comedian 
Mort Sahl emceed the festival, and some eighteen thousand listeners 



136 


MR. PLAYBOY 


attended every night. A jubilant Hefner sat in the front row as Sahl 
quipped, “This should prove to skeptics that Playboy magazine is 
interested in more than one thing.” When Hefner was introduced at 
the intermission on the last night, he asked if there should be another 
festival next year and the crowd roared its approval . 32 

Playboy made no money from the event, turning over all proceeds 
above expenses to Chicago’s Urban League. But it gained something 
much more valuable: an upgrading of its reputation. As Variety 
observed in a highly favorable assessment of the concert, “there’s 
little doubt the affair did enhance Playboy’ s institutional status.” In 
comments to Billboard, Victor Lownes revealed just how much. 

Our main object is to improve the image of the magazine in 
the eyes of those advertisers who have not yet stopped to read 
it, but who judge it merely by the centerfold. We want to bring 
home to these advertisers that Playboy covers all the interests 
of the smart, young American male. Accomplishing this is 
worth a considerable bit of money to us. 

By pulling off this prestigious event, the magazine took a large step 
forward in establishing itself in the mainstream. Connecting itself to 
images of sophisticated entertainment, leisure, and upward mobility, 
it demonstrated that it was hip but not beat . 33 

Hefner’s upbeat message of social success and material abundance 
showcased one final dimension. “The emphasis on hi-fi, sports cars, 
good food and drink, good entertainment, good literature and music 
is to stimulate our young men to educate themselves so they can make 
enough money to enjoy these benefits,” he told the Saturday Evening 
Post. “In this way we can help overcome the educational gap between 
ourselves and the Russians. Our mission is to make this the Upbeat 
Generation instead of the Beat Generation, and thus perform a ser- 
vice for America.” This desire to help his country in the prevailing 
atmosphere of Cold War tension revealed an ideological dimension 
in Hefner’s enterprise. Engaged in a confrontation with the global 
forces of communism, the United States attempted to define and 
defend an American Way of Life based on consumer prosperity as 
well as democratic freedom. On this front, Playboy stood prepared 
to play a heroic role . 34 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


137 


III 

In the summer of 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon journeyed to 
Moscow as the head of a delegation to open the American National 
Exhibition at a trade fair. While touring the model of a suburban 
home from the United States, he engaged Soviet premier Nikita 
Khrushchev in the famous “Kitchen Debates.” Nixon maintained 
that the prosperous standard of living for ordinary citizens in the 
United States would fuel its long-term triumph, insisting that televi- 
sion sets, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other consumer 
amenities were the weapons that ultimately would win the Cold War. 
Khrushchev mocked this notion. But Nixon s rhetoric revealed much 
about the tight link between the desire for economic security and 
national security. The ability to choose from among an abundant array 
of material items set off the United States from the gray, drab, uni- 
form existence of communist societies and defined its notion of the 
good life. 35 

In many ways, Playboy embodied this ideological impulse. In terms 
of style, of course, the magazine could not have stood further from 
the stodgy Eisenhower administration, whose leader once allowed 
that his favorite band was Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. But 
on matters of political economy, Hefner stood shoulder to shoulder 
with Nixon and avast majority of his fellow citizens. Americas ability 
to produce and consume an array of items represented the essence 
of the modern free enterprise system. 

Clearly, Hefner and his magazine lay in the mainstream of Cold 
War corporate liberalism. Like both major political parties, Playboy 
displayed an essential belief in modern consumer capitalism along 
with an endorsement of government controls to keep its excesses 
in check. To this consensus, Hefner and his magazine added strong 
elements of free expression and nonconformity regarding cultural 
issues. Playboy’s politics in the 1950s were capitalist in their endorse- 
ment of entrepreneurial free enterprise, progressive in its belief in 
the necessity of government regulation, and libertarian in its empha- 
sis on individual freedom on social and cultural matters. While usu- 
ally proceeding indirectly — the Upbeat Generation tended to find 
political disputation distracting and uncool — the magazine positioned 
itself as a defender of the American Way of Life. Far from being 



138 


MR. PLAYBOY 


subversive, as some of its more hysterical critics contended, Playboy 
insisted that adoption of a pleasure ethic would strengthen America 
in its struggle with communism. 

At the heart of Hefners ideological message lay a total commit- 
ment to individual freedom. This bedrock belief emerged in part 
from his reading of American history, which concluded that an opti- 
mistic, rags-to-riches, success-seeking creed had animated its citizens 
until the Great Depression brought an obsessive concern with pro- 
tecting the average, ordinary individual: 

Because of a veiy valid concern for the average man, for the 
common man, who was in trouble, little by little, much of 
the viewpoints expressed in the mass media began to empha- 
size not only concern for the common man, but almost a kind 
of idealization of him. . . . Then on into the war years for 
another half-dozen years, beginning in the Forties, confor- 
mity of another kind took hold. . . . Well, out of all this came a 
tremendous de-emphasis of the importance of the individual 
and individual initiative, and a tremendous de-emphasis on 
education. . . . 

All of a sudden we realized, and on a very practical level, 
too, that the country had almost stood still for 20 years. All of 
a sudden the world s greatest power was a long way short. . . . 

But with the new generation, there seemed to be an unwill- 
ingness to accept a lot of these old taboos, old traditions, old 
concepts. ... I think Playboy is a part of this. 36 

Hefner consistently stressed that “individual freedom in terms of 
sexual behavior was of a piece with individual freedom in the free 
enterprise system.” He believed, in his own words, that the genius of 
capitalism allowed “the best ideas and the best people rise to the top, 
or at least have a chance to compete. And everyone benefits from that 
on eveiy kind of level.” 37 

At the same time, Hefner firmly supported government regula- 
tion of the economy. In the tradition of twentieth-century progres- 
sivism, he asserted that a free, competitive society would not “remain 
free or competitive very long . . . without some controls; complete 
laissez-faire capitalism wouldn’t give us free enterprise any more 
than anarchy would give us political freedom.” While competition 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


139 


and profit-seeking should be encouraged, “you need government to 
control, to referee the game.” So while Hefner endorsed the free play 
of individual ambition, he also contended that it should be kept from 
mutating into destructive greed and power-mongering. He was, in his 
own phrase, a disciple of “enlightened self-interest.” 38 

Moreover, in the 1950s Hefner was clearly anticommunist. In a 
memo on a Charlie Chaplin story for Playboy, he observed that the 
comic genius had made a serious mistake in endorsing leftist radical- 
ism during the 1930s when “Communism was not clearly seen as 
the totalitarian dictatorship it is today.” In a private letter, he again 
denounced communism as “a totalitarian dictatorship that permits no 
opinion but its own, and I happen to be a boy who believes fervently 
in democracy and freedom of expression.” 39 

Hefners stubborn libertarian streak also pushed to the fore, 
particularly in issues involving free speech. He denounced any 
kind of censorship, either from interest groups or from the govern- 
ment. In 1959, for instance, controversy arose when the police chief 
in a San Francisco suburb banned Playboy because of “obscene” 
pictures. A newspaper storm erupted, with Congresswoman Kathryn 
E. Granahan (D-Pa.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Postal 
Operations, denouncing the “billion dollar a year smut racket” and 
claiming a connection among lewd materials, juvenile delinquency, 
and communism. Hefner vigorously defended free expression. 
“If the reading material of the citizens of any community is to be 
pre-selected — a pretty abhorrent thought in itself — I can’t think of 
anyone less qualified to do it than a local police chief,” he told the 
Associated Press. 40 

Hefner also raised the banner of free speech in defending against 
McCarthyism. Although anticommunist, he was disgusted by the 
Red-hunting crusades initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his 
ilk. After a reader complained about Playboy’s willingness to publish 
articles by leftist writers, Hefner offered a ringing defense of free 
expression in a democracy: 

playboy sincerely believes that this nation is big enough, strong 
enough, and right enough to give free expression to the ideas 
and talents of every man among us without fear of being hurt by 
any man’s individual weaknesses or follies. . . . [America] prides 
itself on fair play and believing a man innocent until proven 



140 


MR. PLAYBOY 


guilty. But that’s really beside the point — for we appreciate 
Picasso as one of the world’s greatest living artists, and we know 
he’s a Communist. Politics may be important in government, 
where national security is a vital consideration, but it has no 
place in art and literature. Not if America’s art and literature, 
and indeed the country itself, are to remain free. 41 

Hefner’s libertarian positions on matters of sex and politics 
aroused the ire of the FBI. In 1957, he reported that FBI agents 
visited the offices of Playboy to inquire about a pictorial being shot 
called “Photographing Your Own Playmate.” They also visited Millie’s 
apartment, asking about her husband’s activities, and put the pub- 
lisher under surveillance. According to documents in Hefner’s FBI 
file, agents were combing through Playboy as early as 1955 look- 
ing for obscenity and unfavorable references to the Bureau or the 
director. 42 

Nonetheless, the magazine maintained a mainstream political pos- 
ture that was reflected in Hefner’s own political loyalties. In 1952, 
he vacillated between Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. “Millie and 
I belong to that happy group known as independent voters, and this 
year we’re pulling for Ike,” he noted initially. But then he switched 
to Stevenson, contending that “his unusual qualifications for the job 
outweigh all other considerations.” At the end of the decade, he 
observed that if Playboy were a political magazine, “it would probably 
be Bepublican in almost all of its national views. I know that I am. 
I don’t dig Socialism — I think it’s unworkable and tends to make men 
sit on their asses instead of working hard to better themselves.” This 
posture continued well into the mid-1960s. 43 

Hefner’s centrist politics influenced his love of the “New Comics,” 
humorists who eschewed gags and one-liners for satirical musings 
on contemporary mores and issues. He first encountered this free- 
form comedy in the improvisational shows of the Compass Players 
(later Second City), a Chicago group that satirized the stodginess 
and hypocrisy of mainstream America. Then Mort Sahl, who styled 
himself “America’s only working philosopher,” appeared. Wearing 
a sweater and brandishing a rolled-up newspaper in one hand, 
he developed an intellectual, stream-of-consciousness style that skew- 
ered prevailing shibboleths in politics, foreign policy, ommunism, and 
religion. On the issue of segregation, for instance, Sahl noted that 



AN ABUNDANT LIFE 


141 


“Eisenhower says that we should approach this problem moderately. 
But Stevenson says we should solve the problem gradually. Now if we 
could just hit a compromise between those two extremes . . .” Hefner 
also became a fan of Lenny Bruce, the outrageous “sick” comedian 
who used a stream of four-letter words to caustically dissect the age of 
Eisenhower. Commenting on everything from funeral homes to dope 
addiction to homosexuality, Bruce typically observed of the news- 
paper headline “Flood Waters Rise, Dikes Threatened,” “It’s always 
the same. In times of emergency they pick on minority groups.” 44 

Hefner promoted Sahl and Bruce heavily in Playboy, believing 
them to be allies in a common cause — “questioning the conformity 
and repression of the times.” The publisher shared a political sensi- 
bility with the New Comics that was more a matter of cultural style 
than policy pronouncements. Sahl and Bruce had no real quarrel 
with the Cold War or capitalism. With their jazz vocabulary, sophis- 
ticated urbanism, and irreverence for authority, these comics, much 
like Hefner and Playboy, represented a movement to loosen the 
system culturally and morally rather than revamp it politically or 
economically. 45 

Playboy’s vaguely progressive political temperament prompted a 
gradual engagement with social issues. It published Vance Packard’s 
“The Manipulators,” a scathing critique of corporate researchers who 
studied people’s hidden needs and anxieties in order to sell products. 
“Eros and Unreason in Detroit” criticized the American auto industry 
for producing shoddy, tasteless cars that appealed to the “one great 
fault with most American males: an irrational fear of impotence.” 
“The Cult of the Aged Leader” questioned the geriatric domination 
of all branches of government. In 1959, Playboy issued a special edi- 
torial sounding the alarm about nuclear testing and the dangerous, 
perhaps deadly, release of the radioactive element strontium-90 into 
the atmosphere. A responsible, reformist political sensibility domi- 
nated all these pieces. 46 

Perhaps the most remarkable testament to Hefners mainstream 
politics, however, came in a 1960 letter to Ronald Reagan, then presi- 
dent of the Screen Actors Guild. The publisher had learned from a 
mutual friend that Reagan had been upset by an article in Playboy 
authored by Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten.” 
So he wrote to the actor assuring him that “We, here at Playboy, 
don’t dig Communism and don’t dig Communists — I don’t like 



142 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Communism and the fundamental things it stands for.” However, 
Hefner continued, censorship and blacklisting represented a “step 
toward tyranny” and was “precisely what this country is fighting 
against and what all totalitarian nations, Communist Russia included, 
have always stood for.” A free society, he argued, demanded a “pro- 
cess of freely exchanging divergent ideas, instead of trying to shut up 
the ones with which we do not agree.” 47 

The letter encapsulated Playboys politics in the 1950s: pro- 
entrepreneur, anticommunist, pro-individual expression, anti- 
censorship. As a voice of a respectable opposition, Hefner sought 
to loosen the restraints of the system while staying firmly within 
it. Navigating a course between the stultifying conformity of the 
Eisenhower age and the jagged alienation of the Beats, Playboy 
and its publisher represented an official counterculture. Much like 
Theodore Roosevelt and his crusade for a “vigorous life” at the dawn 
of the twentieth century, Playboy mounted a revitalization movement 
that sought to inject sexual energy, social style, and masculine power 
into a tired mainstream society in order to strengthen it for struggle 
against hostile foes. As Hefner expressed it beautifully in a newspaper 
interview at the end of the decade, “We’re trying to project an accept- 
able rebel voice.” 48 

Promoting consumer abundance as well as sexual liberation, 
Playboy provided a powerful boost to the full-blown culture of self- 
fulfillment that was sweeping away the last vestiges of Victorian 
self-denial. As Hefner once put it, launching Playboy “was like a 
mission — to publish a magazine that would thumb its nose at all the 
restrictions that had bound me.” 49 

Hefner and Playboy, in defying older rules of restraint, gave voice 
to his era’s yearning to meet all needs, satisfy all desires, sate all appe- 
tites. This crusade, he explained, aimed at “challenging the two greatest 
guilts our society has: materialism and sex.” Hefner had gambled that 
his own desire to partake of sexual and material abundance was shared 
widely in postwar society. He had presented a magazine reflecting his 
interests, his tastes, his desires, himself, “not exactly as I exist, but as 
my dreams existed. The kind of guy that I aspired to be.” The bet paid 
off. Playboy’s popularity revealed that many others had similar visions 
of the good life and wanted to be the same kind of guy. 50 



8 


Living the Fantasy 


T he signs were hard to miss. As Playboy took off in the mid-1950s, 
its youthful editor and publisher began to spend increasing 
amounts of time with shapely females who regularly appeared in 
the magazine’s offices. Ray Russell raised his eyebrows one day when 
a young woman showed up and stayed a long time in his boss’s office. 
“I realized she wasn’t there on business. It shows you how naive I was 
in those days that I was shocked, because after all, Hef was a married 
man” he observed. “I wised up soon enough in the years to come as 
the stream of young ladies filed in and out of Hef’s office.” 1 

Victor Lownes stumbled across another indicator of his boss’s sex- 
ual adventures. A common female acquaintance let slip about Hef’s 
“little black book” she found on his night table. It listed girls he dated 
and “there were some coded markings” that apparently “referred 
to various specialties in the sex department.” It also listed one of 
the older, dowdier females on the Playboy staff as one of his past 
conquests. When Lownes asked Hefner if he had really slept with 
her, the publisher admitted he had. Lownes inquired mischievously, 


143 



144 


MR. PLAYBOY 


“Was she better looking in those days?” Hefner thought for a moment 
and replied, “I hope so.” 2 

Such was the emerging pattern of Hefner s private life in the 1950s. 
As Playboy gathered steam, its young publisher gradually adapted his 
own life to the new atmosphere of fantasy he had invoked. In many 
ways, it was not an easy process. Shy, sentimental, and largely uninter- 
ested in fashionable clothes, fast sports cars, and fine food and liquor, 
Hefner did not gravitate naturally to sophistication. Moreover, he was 
married with two small children. So his embrace of a Playboy lifestyle 
emerged only in fits and starts, beginning with a series of girlfriends 
and liaisons that contributed to the steady crumbling of his marriage. 

Near the end of the decade, however, Hefner fully reinvented 
himself. Publicly, and with great fanfare, he adopted the Playboy 
ethos of sexual revolution and material abundance. He also under- 
took several projects involving television, nightclubs, and a fantastic 
mansion that brought to life the magazine s fantasies of pleasure. 

With his keen intuitive sense, Hefner grasped the growing impor- 
tance of celebrity in postwar America. In a consumer culture devoted 
to leisure and entertainment, celebrities from the world of mov- 
ies, television, sports, and glossy magazines — those, according to 
Daniel Boorstins famous quip, who were “well-known for their well- 
knownness” — assumed central places in popular consciousness. Mass 
communication broadcast larger-than-life images of people on the tele- 
vision screen or glossy magazine page and created an illusion of actu- 
ally knowing them. As Richard Schickel has observed, in this muddle 
of public and private life these “intimate strangers” gained a powerful 
influence. As arbiters of manners and opinions, celebrities became 
“the chief agents of moral change in the United States.” In the 1950s, 
Hefner emerged as just such a celebrity. As Mr. Playboy, projecting 
images of a dream-come-true life of sexual and consumer plenty, he 
emerged as the impresario of the pleasure ethic in postwar America. 3 


I 

With the founding of Playboy, work and play became inseparable 
elements of Hefners life. With increasing regularity, he collapsed 
from exhaustion in the small adjoining bedroom at his Superior Street 
office and stayed overnight. Subsequently, his Ohio Street office suite 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


145 


contained a separate bachelor apartment with a bedroom, dressing 
room, and bathroom. Both settings hosted dalliances with a series of 
young women. Steadily distancing himself from a strained marriage 
and a family in which he had declining interest, he threw himself 
into a life he felt had been denied him in young manhood. Hefner 
became a playboy about town. 

The nightclub scene on the Near North Side, not far from the 
magazine s Ohio Street offices, formed the background for Hefners 
revitalized social activities. While Chicago was an old-fashioned, 
machine-run city under the domination of Mayor Richard Daley and 
heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, the Near North Side flour- 
ished as a bohemian haven full of artists and art galleries, newspapers 
and journalists, restaurants and clubs. The area around Rush Street 
was particularly boisterous, filled with nightclubs such as Mr. Kellys, 
the Black Orchid, the Cloisters, and the Chez Paree. With a gang of 
buddies — Victor Lownes, Shel Silverstein, comedian Don Adams, 
agent Lee Wolfberg, and club owners Shelly Kasten, Skip Krask, and 
John Dante — Hefner prowled the nightspots of the area in the early 
morning hours after leaving his office around midnight. The group 
played poker and gin rummy, shared drinks and music, and often 
went out for breakfast as the sun came up. “Chicago was the swing- 
ingest town in the entire world,” Adams noted of the atmosphere. 
“It was like New Years Eve every night.” 4 

Casual sexual conquests punctuated these boisterous male gather- 
ings. The nightclubs were full of women, and Hefner, like the others, 
successfully wooed, according to Kasten, “show girls, waitresses, hat 
check girls, gals off the street.” One night they all had too much to 
drink and, in Krask’s words, they “organized an orgy.” During the 
revelry, he and Kasten snapped a picture of Hefner in bed with two 
girls. Several nights later, as a prank, they gave him an envelope they 
claimed some guy had dropped off. It contained a print of the sala- 
cious picture along with a note demanding $500 to keep it out of the 
newspapers. The publisher looked stricken and turned so pale that 
they quickly stopped the joke. 5 

The Playboy offices, bubbling with sexual intrigue, provided 
an equally vibrant social atmosphere. In a setting where breaking 
down walls of sexual restraint was company business, vigorous 
young men and women, unsurprisingly, developed attractions. 
Affairs flourished. Ray Russell fooled around with girls in the office 



146 


MR. PLAYBOY 


“with some regularity,” according to a colleague. Bev Chamberlain 
and Vince Tajiri had an extended affair. Janet Pilgrim hooked up with 
advertising executive Phil Miller. Eldon Sellers and Anson Mount 
began socializing with their wives and, according to Sellers, “these get- 
togethers often took the form of wife-swapping hanky-panky.” Staff 
parties often turned libidinous. On Ohio Street a version of the “play- 
pen” at the Lownes-Sellers apartment — four beds bolted together 
side by side — was erected in the photo studio for physical encoun- 
ters. At one wild Christmas gathering, two usually staid staffers spent 
several hours necking and petting heavily on a couch in the middle 
of the room. “Their concentration and their stamina were amazing,” 
remembered Arlene Bouras. As Bussell once cracked, “At most com- 
panies you’d be fired if you fooled around on the job with somebody 
you worked with. At Playboy it was grounds for promotion.” 6 

Hefner surged far ahead of the pack with his sexual escapades. 
By 1955 he had begun dating a series of young women. First came 
Shirley Delancey, who along with her roommate, Mary Ann Lajoie, 
was a dancer at the Empire Boom in Chicago’s Palmer House. (They 
served as the inspiration for Babs and Shirley . ) He went out with 
Connie Chancellor, ex-wife of then Chicago television broadcaster 
John Chancellor. He had flings with several magazine employees: 
Playmate Janet Pilgrim, personal secretary Pat Pappas, and assistant 
photo editor Bev Chamberlain. In 1956, Hefner began seeing Sheila 
Browning, who worked at Chicago’s Gaslight Club, as well as the 
popular Playmate Lisa Winters. Upon visiting Hollywood for the first 
time, he attended a party at photographer Earl Leaf’s home in the 
company of starlets Suzanne Sidney and Joan Bradshaw that, in his 
words, “ended in a multi-partner orgy.” He even had a one-night 
stand with Janie Sellers, an old high school friend who had had a 
crush on him for years. There were others — many others — as Hefner 
estimated he had around fifteen to twenty liaisons a year. 7 

Some of the publisher’s colleagues did not approve of his sexual 
adventures, especially with coworkers at the magazine. Art Paul 
derided his boss’s pursuit of many women on the staff as “the old 
sophomoric notches on the bedpost” mentality. Marge Pitner also dis- 
approved because it created personnel problems. Female staffers he 
dated “figured they didn’t have to show up for work on time anymore, 
like they were privileged characters or something,” she observed. 8 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


147 


Not surprisingly, Hefners marriage grew strained. Millie lost 
patience, concluding that his sexual pursuits were an obsession dat- 
ing back to adolescence. Her husband did not try to hide his affairs, 
spending little time at home and confessing when Millie confronted 
him. The couple had a rocky relationship for the five years after 
Playboy started, with long interludes of separation punctuated by 
brief reconciliations. “The fault is all mine, of course, and I’m in that 
unhappy state where I seem to be unable to live either with or with- 
out her,” Hefner told his brother in 1956. 9 

But from among the dozens of sexual dalliances that Hefner had in 
the last half of the 1950s, three young women emerged as special girl- 
friends. They were companions with whom he had genuine relation- 
ships, and their experiences revealed much about the man behind the 
masthead. Betty Zuziakwas an eighteen-year-old coed at Northwestern 
in 1957 when she met Janet Pilgrim and got a job at Playboy in the 
subscription department. A cute, perky girl with an affectionate man- 
ner and relaxed style, she met Hefner at the staff Christmas party, 
felt an instant attraction, and lost her virginity to him. “I fell hard, 
and was very much in love — my first major romance,” she described. 
The publisher saw her steadily over a four-year period from 1957 to 
1960. He went to her apartment several times a week — accumulating 
stacks of parking tickets in the process — where they would spend quiet 
evenings listening to records, watching television, and eating home- 
cooked meals. Hefner described Zuziak as “a warm and comfortable 
companion” and their relationship as a “shelter from the storm, an 
escape from all my responsibilities into our own private little world of 
simple pleasures and pastimes.” For her part, Zuziak was content to 
be “with him because I cared for him.” 10 

While seeing Zuziak, Hefner met a teenage model and beauty- 
contest winner named Joyce Nizzari while visiting Miami in 1958. 
They felt an immediate attraction and spent several nights 
together “imagining we were falling in love with one another,” in 
Hefners words. He invited her to Chicago, and over the next couple of 
years they saw each other frequently. With medium dark hair, lovely 
features, and a lithe figure, Nizzari accompanied Hefner to the Cannes 
Film Festival and Kennedy Inaugural Ball and they had an intense 
relationship at various periods from 1958 to 1961. Hefner described 
her as a “special lady” in his life and even visited her parents’ home 



148 


MR. PLAYBOY 


in Miami during one trip there. Nizzari became a Playmate in the 
December 1958 issue of Playboy , n 

In 1959 Hefner met Joni Mattis. She came from a troubled back- 
ground, having spent part of her childhood in a Baptist orphanage 
after her mother died and her father entered the service during World 
War II. When her father returned home from the service, he sexu- 
ally molested her. As a teenager, she became pregnant and gave up 
the baby for adoption, then lived with a sternly Christian foster cou- 
ple before marrying a rigidly religious man who treated her harshly. 
She began modeling and met Hefner while serving as an usherette 
at a movie theater, dressed in a French maids costume. A petite, 
demure young woman with enormous dark eyes and pale skin, she 
resembled a Dresden doll and exuded a sense of intense vulnerability. 
Mattis and Hefner were mutually smitten and enjoyed passionate 
interludes from 1959 to 1961. She would appear as a Playmate in 
November 1960. When the romance ended, the two remained close 
friends and Mattis would go on to work for Hefner until her death 
in 1999. 12 

Hefners serious relationships with Zuziak, Nizzari, and Mattis 
revealed much about his mental and emotional qualities. They 
brought to light competing, even contradictory impulses in his 
personality — on the one side a sweet nature, romantic sentimental- 
ity, and endearing lack of sophistication, and on the other a tendency 
toward distrust, possessiveness, and egotism. 

Hefner’s shy, simple nature struck all of the young women with 
whom he became involved. Unpretentious and a homebody, he 
veered toward card games with his buddies, fried chicken dinners, 
films, and pasting pictures in his scrapbook. “He had a little-boy qual- 
ity about his enthusiasms that I found utterly charming,” said Zuziak. 
He exhibited a basic shyness, noted Mattis, and even a kind of vul- 
nerability. He loved to sit home and watch television shows such as 
The Twilight Zone, or dash out for a late-night movie followed by a 
cheeseburger at a local diner. Dressing respectably, but with little 
concern for fashion, he always wore white socks because of a foot 
fungus he had picked up in the army. 13 

Hefner had a warm, sweet temperament. “He was extremely 
romantic and I ate that up,” Zuziak reported. “He was constantly 
sending me flowers and gifts.” On one occasion he presented her with 
a piece of jewelry containing a white pearl set with a diamond chip 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


149 


and a smaller black pearl. The pearls embodied their relationship, 
he told her, with the smaller black one, representing unhappiness, 
being totally dominated by the larger white one, standing for love 
and affection. “We held hands a lot and did a lot of hugging and 
cuddling,” Zuziak noted. Mattis had a similar experience, as Hefner 
displayed great concern for her feelings and treated her, according 
to that archaic phrase, like a lady. During their romantic evenings or 
weekends, he would order champagne, play jazz records, and talk 
quietly with her. As she once put it simply, “he was real sweet .” 14 

But alongside these romantic qualities stood less attractive ones. 
Hefner felt a need to maintain dominance in his relationships with 
women, an impulse, according to Zuziak, that was rooted in a fear of 
female betrayal from Millies affair with the coach many years before. 
He controlled relationships because giving up power meant showing 
weakness and demonstrating vulnerability. Exposing chinks in ones 
emotional armor to women, who could wound you emotionally, was 
dangerous and unacceptable . 15 

This instinct to dominate produced a powerful egotism in Hefners 
romantic relationships. When one of the staffers at Playboy opined 
that he was seeing women who weren’t good enough for him, he 
replied frankly, “Well, if I start going out with movie stars then 
I wouldn’t have someone who was more interested in me than in her- 
self.” All his girlfriends noted that he focused on his own needs, while 
they were forced to adapt to his schedule, desires, and preferences 
if they wanted to see him. Some feared losing themselves completely 
from being swallowed up in his world. “His relationships are basically 
I, I, I, I. . . . It was very, very difficult,” said Zuziak . 16 

Hefner also could be possessive, even callous, toward women 
who were close to him. He felt free to see any attractive female who 
caught his fancy, but wanted exclusive devotion from his girlfriends. 
According to one, “He had a total double standard. He served notice 
that he would be seeing others, but he expected me to be totally loyal 
to him.” Moreover, Hefner could be remarkably insensitive to his 
girlfriends by exhibiting obliviously his latest conquest. “Hef broke 
my heart. You know, he’d parade them right in front of me,” Mattis 
complained. “I’d be sitting there, and then he’d have a girl, and he’d 
just walk right in front of me. Take the girls into his room .” 17 

Occasionally, Hefner’s girlfriends would grow frustrated and strike 
back at him. Zuziak arranged a casual date every once in a while to 



150 


MR. PLAYBOY 


make him jealous. Mattis adopted more extreme tactics, such as one 
time when at a party where Hefner was showing too much attention 
to Ann Richards, a singer in Stan Kentons band, she sidled up and 
nudged her into the swimming pool. She also began spending time 
with Frank Sinatra to make Hefner angry. 18 

Hefners affairs in the 1950s had predictable domestic conse- 
quences as his marriage, already on shaky ground, began to crum- 
ble. He was almost never at home, and awkward episodes involving 
Millie and his girlfriends mounted steadily. On New Years Eve in 
1955, when she was pregnant with their second child, Millie went to 
a Playboy party and “there was Hef sitting over there with a girl, and 
necking with her,” she recalled later. “I just walked out, hailed a cab, 
and went home Another time, Millie came up to the magazine offices 
with the children. Janet Pilgrim, who had been having an affair with 
her boss, became visibly upset and left. According to a coworker, a 
few weeks later she hastily married and it “lasted about a month.” 19 
Hefner had concluded that his marriage, because of basic incom- 
patibility, was hopeless. After their official separation in the summer of 
1957, he ruminated that “in the end, she has suffered the most from 
it, for I have the magazine to keep me going.” An embittered Millie 
complained that her husband lacked the capacity to be faithful. “This is 
the way hes behaved all the time I’ve known him,” she said. “There was 
never a time that I knew him where I felt we had a one-to-one relation- 
ship.” His disregard of parenthood became a particularly painful point 
of contention. “He didn’t particularly want children,” Millie noted. “He 
went along with it. But he was not a father.” As weeks went by during 
which Hefner would not see Christie or David, she nonetheless assured 
the children that “Daddy was good, and Daddy was caring, and he was 
so busy he didn’t have a lot of time, but he loves you.” But he did visit 
periodically, and, Millie admitted, “In his way, he cared, too.” 20 

Finally, the marriage ended. In March 1959, after reaching agree- 
ment in advance with her husband, Millie sued Hefner for divorce 
on the grounds of desertion. She asked for custody of the children 
and alimony, receiving both, while he received rights of regular visita- 
tion. The pair had negotiated the terms on an amicable basis and they 
accepted the divorce in a positive light. Millie made plans to remarry. 
“Hef has no marriage plans, thinks the publisher of playboy should 
be a bachelor, hopes to remain that way for a long time,” Hefner 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


151 


noted in a letter. “All remains more than friendly on all sides and the 
new marriage should be best for everyone — Millie, the children, and 
all.” And, indeed, Hugh and Millie would stay on fairly good terms 
over the next several decades. 21 

These private adventures set the stage for a seminal event in 
Hefners life. In the late 1950s he transformed himself, much as he had 
done before his senior year in high school, when he dropped the nice, 
middle-class, boyish Hugh for the jive-talking, swing-dancing, saddle- 
shoed Hef. Now, with his marriage over, his magazine enjoying boom 
times, and new social vistas opening up, Hefner remade himself. F rom 
a private cocoon where he labored as a workaholic and lothario, he 
emerged onto the public stage as a pipe-smoking social butterfly with 
a string of beautiful women on his arm. He became Mr. Playboy. 


II 

Readers opening the June 1957 issue of Playboy, expecting to find the 
usual preview of the magazine’s articles and features in the “Playbill,” 
were surprised. “This month we’d like you to meet Editor- Publisher 
Hugh M. Hefner, the man responsible for the pulse, the personality, 
and the very existence of this magazine,” began a different introduc- 
tion. The piece described a night owl who arose just before noon and 
worked into the early hours of the morning, a man who shouldered 
many tasks as the head of a dynamic men’s magazine. Above all, it 
stressed how his personal style reflected that of his readers: 

His dress is conservative and casual, he always wears loafers, 
and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola, which he consumes at the rate 
of two dozen a day, is never far away. There is an elec- 
tronic entertainment wall in his office . . . [and] Brubeck, 
Kenton or Sinatra is usually on the turntable when Hefner 
is working. 

He is essentially an indoor man. . . . He likes jazz, foreign 
films, Ivy League Clothes, gin and tonic, and pretty girls — 
the same sort of things that playboy readers like — and his 
approach to life is as fresh, sophisticated, and yet admittedly 
sentimental as is the magazine’s. 



152 


MR. PLAYBOY 


A full-page picture of Hefner showed him standing on the bottom 
stairs at the entrance of the Ohio Street offices, looking coolly 
upward as an attractive blonde a few steps below stared flirtatiously 
at him. 22 

In such fashion, Hefner stepped out from behind his desk and into 
the public limelight as he remade his image in the late 1950s. His 
motivation was personal, but the makeover reflected a larger trend 
in American popular culture as the decade ended. The ideal of the 
team-oriented business executive, the family man in the gray flannel 
suit, moved to the sidelines before a new ideal of the vibrant, vigor- 
ously heterosexual male who was bold, irreverent, hip, and successful. 
The new type popped up everywhere — in fictional figures such as 
James Bond, in politicians such as John F. Kennedy, and in entertain- 
ers such as Sinatra and the Rat Pack. In the public imagination, Hugh 
Hefner joined this group as he personified the Playboy lifestyle 23 

In fact, the magazine incessantly promoted the icons of the new 
male ideal. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Playboy’s idoliza- 
tion of a suave, handsome fictitious secret agent from Her Majesty’s 
Secret Service. When Kennedy, the glamorous new president, 
announced that he was a fan of Ian Flemings spy novels with their 
fictional hero, James Bond, he confirmed a Playboy favorite. The 
magazine had introduced Flemings character in March 1960 with 
“The Hildebrand Rarity,” a short story, and over the next few years 
the dashing spy would become a mainstay of the publication. With 
his casual elegance, beautiful women, fast sports cars, and space- 
age gadgets, Bond embodied the magazine’s fantasy appeal for men. 
Fleming actually visited the Playboy offices in 1960, and the magazine 
proudly reported his comment: “I’m sure James Bond, if he were an 
actual person, would be a registered reader of playboy. ” Hefner was a 
big fan, once writing Fleming to offer the environs of his magazine as 
a setting for a future story. The Bond phenomenon, both in book and 
movie form, as well as the sexy women who adorned the films, would 
appear regularly in Playboy , while Fleming and Sean Connery (the 
cinematic Bond) would be the subjects of interviews. 24 

Similarly, the magazine offered admiring treatments of Frank 
Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Hefner had idolized the popular singer for 
many years, and a 1958 Playboy profile describing him as “the most 
potent figure in show business today, the most spectacularly popular 
singer of popular songs, the most sought after movie star, the most 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


153 


successful wooer of women.” By the late 1950s, Sinatra, along with his 
sidekicks — singer/dancer Sammy Davis Jr., comedian Dean Martin, 
actor Peter Lawford, and comic Joey Bishop — had become the epit- 
ome of modern male celebrity with their suave manner, sophisti- 
cated wisecracks, undeniable talent, and womanizing reputations. A 
1960 Playboy feature on the Rat Pack described how they filled the 
Sands nightclub in Las Vegas every evening while filming the movie 
Ocean’s Eleven. Calling them “the innest in-group in the world,” 
it characterized the Rat Pack as “a very special gang of Hollywood 
rebels . . . [who] possess talent, charm, romance, and a devil-may-care 
nonconformity that gives them immense popular appeal.” 25 

Around this time, Hefner began hanging out with Sinatra and his 
cronies. Sammy Davis, who frequently performed at the Chez Paree, 
a Near North Side club directly across the alley from the Playboy 
offices, became a frequent visitor and a good friend of the publisher. 
In September 1960 Hefner hosted a party for the Rat Pack after one 
of their performances in Chicago, and two months later Hefner and 
Lownes were invited to attend a Hollywood stag party for Davis, an 
African American who was about to enter a controversial marriage 
with the blond Caucasian actress May Britt. 26 

Hefners endorsement of the new male paradigm also surfaced in 
his involvement with John Kennedy’s bid for the presidency in 1960. 
He donated money to the campaign under the auspices of Sinatra, who 
had gained entry into Kennedy’s circle through Lawford, Kennedy’s 
brother-in-law, and subsequently championed his cause among 
Hollywood entertainers. Hefner was attracted to the youthful sena- 
tor’s sympathy for civil rights, a special cause for him, and saw him as 
a progressive figure eager to overturn the stodgy traditionalism of the 
Eisenhower era. Typically, he looked through the prism of the movies, 
perceiving in Kennedy “a Frank Capra view of society that I strongly 
supported. He was, to me, a ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ‘Meet 
John Doe’ president.” But Kennedy’s vigorous masculine aura also 
appealed. Hefner admired the young senator for being “a handsome 
swinger,” in his words. “He had personal karma and sex appeal that 
was appealing on both the political and personal fronts. The joke at 
the time was that Kennedy would do for sex what Eisenhower had 
done for golf,” Hefner recalled later. “He was one of us.” 27 

After Kennedy’s election, Hefner secured tickets and went to 
Washington, D.C., to celebrate the new president’s taking office. 



154 


MR. PLAYBOY 


On January 20, 1961, he and Joyce Nizzari, along with Victor Lownes 
and a date, attended an Inaugural Ball organized by Frank Sinatra 
for Hollywood, Broadway, and entertainment stars. Hefner rented a 
Georgetown town house and limousine for the occasion. A few days 
after the inauguration, Hefner and Lownes flew to New York City for 
a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at Carnegie Hall, which featured 
entertainment by Sinatra and his Bat Pack. 28 

Thus Hefner associated himself with Bond, Sinatra, and Kennedy 
as a prototype of the new male in the popular imagination. After 
returning from the Cannes Film Festival in the summer of 1959, 
where he rubbed shoulders with a host of film stars, the publisher 
was primed to project a new celebrity image. He began to dress more 
fashionably, started smoking a pipe, and gave numerous interviews 
elaborating on his personal life. Purchasing a Mercedes-Benz 300SL 
convertible, he appeared in an ad for the car where he posed comfort- 
ably leaning against it in front of the entrance to the Playboy offices. 
Hefner also pursued self-promotion in the pages of Playboy, reassur- 
ing a skeptical associate that “as a living personification of the maga- 
zine I can’t quite see where my presence within the book is anything 
but positive.” 29 

The press picked up the signals as stories stressing Hefner’s celeb- 
rity status began to appear. The Chicago American presented a big 
spread in June 1960 with a piece called “The Playboy Behind Playboy.” 
“For all practical purposes, Hefner is Playboy,” it said. “Its personal- 
ity is Hefners and vice versa.” Others followed quickly. A feature in 
the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune described Hefner as “the country’s 
hardest working playboy.” Surveying his daunting editorial routine 
and personal endeavors, it concluded, “As he works, he manages to 
live the life glorified by his magazine.” By 1961, press accounts rou- 
tinely elaborated this theme. The titles revealed all: an AP story called 
“Playboy’s Playboy Hugh Hefner Lives American Male’s Dream” and 
a UPI story titled “Serious ‘Playboy’ Built an Empire with Pretty 
Girls.” 30 

The public creation of Mr. Playboy, however, was difficult. Not a 
natural sophisticate, Hefner remained a hardworking, quietly intense, 
sentimental, and introverted guy with a fondness for the simple things 
in life. The quest to become a polished, urbane role model often only 
highlighted his ordinary tastes in food, drink, and clothing. The ironic 
picture of “the publisher of a magazine devoted to the sophisticated 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


155 


life, fine wines & haute cuisine, etc. subsisting almost exclusively on 
Pepsi and fried chicken” amused his friends, as well as Hefner himself, 
according to Ray Russell. Similarly, girlfriend Retty Zuziak described 
Hefner as “a very simple, honest, totally unsophisticated man . . . prior 
to the pipe and all that, when they began to push his image.” 31 

Thus the appearance as Mr. Playboy demanded a makeover of 
much of Hefners personality. Zuziak sensed a fraud. She believed 
that, in fact, he became “caught up in a monster he created” and 
began “playing a part” to meet public expectations. “At what point 
do you separate reality and the fantasy?” she asked. However, this 
plausible contention overlooked the fact that Playboy, from the very 
beginning, was an exercise in sexual, emotional, and material fantasy. 
So if Hefner was playing a role, it was one he believed in wholeheart- 
edly. It brought him front and center stage in American society, where 
he could convince his audience that fantasy could be more powerful, 
more real, than reality. He utilized the props of cars, clothes, women, 
interviews, and publicity, but the real opportunity to shape a persona 
came with a trio of projects that provided an even larger stage for 
projecting the Playboy dream of the good life. 32 


Ill 

In the few months from October 1959 to February 1960, Hefner 
launched a television program, bought a magnificent Gilded Age 
mansion in Chicago, and opened the first Playboy Club. These ini- 
tiatives changed his life forever. They made him not just a spokesman 
for but the major practitioner of the Playboy lifestyle. Transforming 
his daily life into, in his words, “a fantasy perception of bachelorhood 
that had heretofore merely been reflected in my magazine,” Hefner, 
indubitably, became Mr. Playboy. 33 

In the late summer of 1959, the publisher began developing a 
syndicated television show titled Playboy’s Penthouse. It would 
be “a ‘Playboy Party’ complete with our ‘Playmates’ and outstand- 
ing personalities from the fields of entertainment and the arts,” he 
told the Chicago Sun-Times. He commissioned Cy Coleman, noted 
songwriter of tunes such as “Witchcraft,” to compose a theme song 
for the show, and created a format based on a cocktail party held in a 
chic bachelor apartment. 34 



156 


MR. PLAYBOY 


The first segment was broadcast in the late evening of October 24, 
1959. Hefner, outfitted in tuxedo and pipe, welcomed several famous 
guests — Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Lenny Bruce, and author 
Rona Jaffe — to his “apartment,” which was set off with sleek modem 
furnishings. Surrounded by beautiful young women, he traded small 
talk with the entertainers before their seemingly impromptu per- 
formances. Joyce Nizzari and Eleanor Bradley discussed their expe- 
riences as Playmates, Shel Silverstein described his worldly travels 
doing cartoons for the magazine, and A. C. Spectorsky explained his 
“Kitchenless Kitchen” for the modern bachelor quarters. The latest 
fashions, witty repartee, elegantly dangling cigarettes, and clinking 
martini glasses embellished the proceedings. 35 

In part, a business rationale lay behind the program. While the 
Jazz Festival had upgraded Playboy as a viable advertising medium, 
Hefner hoped that “the syndicated television show would do the 
same on a national basis.” The magazine had an image problem with 
many general readers and needed to distance itself from any taint 
of “filth and obscenity,” Victor Lownes told Sales Management. The 
television show would help. With its vibrant images of the good life, 
the program promised to be “an ideal showcase for our advertisers as 
well as for the talent on the show,” he explained. 36 

But the program also had a larger aim — bringing the Playboy 
vision of happiness to life. Hefner insisted on a format and content 
that would draw the magazine s “particular editorial personality and 
point of view into the show.” In so doing, of course, it would show- 
case Hefner and his new image. Everything reinforced this gambit, 
from the opening, which rolled credits over a filmed background of 
him driving his Mercedes convertible around Chicago at night, to 
the setting in a sophisticated bachelor pad, to his debonair appear- 
ance. As Lownes confirmed, the show was a “logical extension of the 
magazine into a new medium — the Playboy lifestyle brought to life. 
With [Hefner] himself as Mr. Playboy, of course.” 37 

But the project faced a recurring difficulty — Hefner was not a very 
good host. He would open the door to the camera and say rather grimly, 
“Good evening, I’m Hugh Hefner. Welcome to the party.” Surrounded 
by pretty girls, he labored gamely, attempting small talk and witticisms 
with the entertainers, venturing insights and observations with the 
intellectuals. He even adopted the pipe as a prop because, in addition 
to lending an air of elegance, it occupied his hands. But he came across 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


157 


as awkward, wooden, and tense, more Gary Cooper than Cary Grant. 
“I was stiff, ill-at-ease and ill-prepared for the role of a performer,” he 
confessed later. “I was an amateur and my on-camera performance 
made Ed Sullivan look like a polished pro.” 38 

Nonetheless, the show became a vehicle for Hefners growing 
celebrity. The power of television — bringing live images of the pub- 
lisher and his lifestyle into living rooms throughout the country — 
enhanced his public renown. Advertising also contributed to the 
self-promotion. Playboy plugged the show and its host while an ad 
released to national media outlets carried a large photo of Hefner 
with a text describing its setting: “swank surroundings high above the 
city’s throng, you’ll meet the stars of show business, famous authors 
and artists, celebrities and, of course, playboy’s lovely Playmates of 
the Month.” A TV Guide promotion contained a picture of Hefner 
against a mass of Playmates and a breathless text: “everyone in 
Chicago knows this man! Bevies of beautiful women surround 
him! Headliners from the entertainment world are his guests, and 
enliven his sophisticated parties! Handsome, suave, urbane — lie’s the 
envy of every man, the idol of every woman!” 39 

While not a huge hit, Playboy’s Penthouse did well. Shot in 
Chicago at WBKB, it was syndicated to twelve other cities, including 
New York and Los Angeles, and got respectable audience numbers. 
The reviews were generally positive, although most noted Hefner’s 
limitations as a host. Variety, for example, observed that the show 
“has freshness, some degree of sophistication, and some good talent 
along with it,” while Hefner was “somewhat awkward as an emcee 
but is excellent as a conversationalist.” For participants, the show 
was fun to shoot. A genuine party atmosphere prevailed much of the 
time, even to the extent that guests drank real liquor to keep things 
loose through multiple takes. On more than one occasion, Hefner 
recalled, “performers were somewhere between tipsy and inebriated 
when they appeared.” 40 

The twenty-six-week first season included guests such as comedians 
Bob Newhart and Don Adams; musicians Sarah Vaughan, Stan 
Kenton, Tony Bennett, and Count Basie; and author Carl Sandburg. 
A second season began in September 1960 — Sammy Davis Jr. starred 
in the opening — with a new hourlong format. Reviews were even 
more positive. “In most respects this is a highly improved product in 
the area of production and presentation, notably where host Hugh 



158 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefner is concerned,” stated the Chicago Sun-Times. “Hefner is 
more relaxed. Last season he reminded me of the stuffy neighbor 
who unbends once annually to let in the kiddies on Halloween night. 
Now he seems more composed, more deliberate about showing off 
something he wants to share (I mean the cats, silly, not the girls).” 
Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the second season, Hefner and 
WBKB decided the show had run its course. 41 

Around the same time, Hefner undertook a second project that 
became a crucial part of Mr. Playboys mystique. He created a fantasy 
home, the Playboy Mansion, in which he could actually pursue, with 
great fanfare, a lifestyle of bachelor freedom and abundant living. 
For the last few years, he had been living at his office, while keeping 
a small apartment on Astor Street that he rarely used. By late in the 
decade he grew determined to occupy a home suitable for the new 
public image he was shaping. He first planned to build a four-story 
town house on the Near North Side, but he ran into problems with 
city regulations and spiraling estimations of cost. So Hefner began to 
look for an existing structure that could be remodeled, and he soon 
located the perfect one. 42 

A. C. Spectorsky and his wife, Theo, were in their apartment reading 
and listening to music on a Sunday afternoon in December 1959 when 
the doorbell began ringing frantically. It was Hefner, who came running 
up the stairs to announce that he had just bought the house across the 
street. He led them over for a quick tour of the huge structure, much 
of which was unoccupied, dingy, and full of dust and cobwebs. But the 
excited editor convinced them that he would soon make it into a show- 
place. He did so, and about a year later, according to Theo, as they sat 
in the great room by the fireplace, he “looked over at me like a little boy 
and said, ‘the greatest thing I ever did was to buy this house.”’ 43 

Hefners dream home sat at 1340 North State Parkway, on 
Chicago’s famed Gold Coast and two blocks from Lake Michigan. The 
four-story, brick-and-limestone mansion had been built in 1899 for 
Dr. Henry Isham, a prominent Chicago physician. A social center in 
the city during the early part of the century, it had welcomed famous 
guests such as Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral Richard Byrd before 
being divided into apartments during the Great Depression. The size 
of a small hotel, it sat behind an ornate iron fence and offered a mod- 
est lawn, driveway, and annex. Its most prominent feature was a huge 
ballroom on the second floor about the size of a basketball court with 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


159 


an enormous marble fireplace at one end and imposing French doors 
at the other. Two stories tall, with open beams on the ceiling and two 
enormous bronze chandeliers, the room was adorned with pillars and 
decorative features of carved wood. Two suits of armor would soon 
guard the entryway, while several modem masterpieces of abstract 
expressionism would enhance the paneled walls. Hefner refurbished 
the numerous apartments and bedrooms in the mansion, many of 
which had marble fireplaces. 44 

The editor installed two unique features that soon became legend- 
ary. First, below the ballroom he built an indoor swimming pool deco- 
rated with palms, and a recessed grotto. On one side of the pool sat a 
bar with a glass wall allowing visitors to look directly into it, with the 
entire complex accessible either by stairs or by a fireman’s pole from 
the floor above. Second, in a suite off the ballroom on the second floor 
Hefner designed his famous master bedroom. The centerpiece was a 
large, rotating round bed that had controls for television, stereo, tape 
machines, lights, and music in the headboard. As the proud owner 
noted, this gadgetry “helped give it a James Bond mystique.” The bed 
became not only the nest for Hefners romantic trysts, but command 
central for his organization as he soon littered it with memo drafts, 
page proofs, and photo stills. Once again, work and play became insep- 
arable elements in his life. 45 

After several weeks of renovation and decoration in early 1960, 
Hefner quickly established a party scene at the baronial Playboy 
Mansion as the make-believe revelries of Playboys Penthouse became 
the real thing. A. C. Spectorsky gave him a brass plaque for the front 
door that read in Latin, “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare,” translated 
as “If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring.” Hefner hosted the first big party 
in May 1960 and others soon followed. “Major parties at the mansion 
became an almost weekly event, with a couple of hundred people 
invited. They usually started around midnight and went until dawn. 
The parties were centered in the ballroom, and included an exten- 
sive buffet, drinking, dancing,” Hefner explained. After the renova- 
tions were completed, the parties spread into the swimming pool, the 
adjoining game room, and the underwater bar. The mansion’s kitchen 
remained open twenty-four hours a day for guests, and the ballroom 
had a theater-sized movie screen that descended out of the ceiling, 
allowing Hefner to show 35mm films, both old and current, to dozens 
of his friends. 46 



160 


MR. PLAYBOY 


The mansion soon attracted enormous publicity. The Chicago 
Tribune ran a big spread in its Sunday magazine early in 1961, and 
major stories on Hefner and his home soon appeared in Time and the 
Saturday Evening Post. The most striking publicity, however, came 
in the pages of Playboy. In December 1961, Hefner ran a lavish ten- 
page feature in the form of a pictorial on a “gala house party” held in 
honor of the magazine’s eighth anniversary. Opening the doors of the 
Playboy Mansion to his readers, Hefner showed visiting Playmates 
around “his opulent digs.” Readers caught glimpses of nude girls 
cavorting in the famous pool and grotto, while the pipe-and-slippered 
host explained his elaborate stereo and collection of abstract expres- 
sionist paintings by modern masters such as Pollock and de Kooning. 
The article also carefully noted the many celebrities who had visited 
the mansion, including Fr a nk Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Hugh O’Brian, 
Stan Getz, Mort Sahl, and Tony Curtis. 47 

If Playboy’s Penthouse provided Hefner a public forum, and the 
Playboy Mansion a private one, for presenting himself as Mr. Playboy, 
a third undertaking invited his audience into the picture. On February 
29, 1960, the first Playboy Club opened at 116 Walton Street in 
Chicago. “It will be an attempt, endorsed by these editors, to project 
the plush and romantic mood of the magazine into a private club of 
good fellows interested in a better, more pleasurable life,” Hefner 
explained in an internal memo at Playboy. Victor Lownes explained 
it more simply: “the idea was to bring the magazine to life.” The 
Playboy Club, which soon would spread to cities all over the United 
States, vividly framed Hefners new celebrity lifestyle by permitting 
others a brief taste of it. 48 

The publisher had entertained the idea for a club when he and 
his club-hopping pals discussed the fantasy of having their own place 
to hang out. “Having our own club would be a real kick and a great 
way to meet chicks,” Hefner recalled. As the magazine became popu- 
lar, the idea broadened to include the Playboy lifestyle. An article 
on Chicago’s Gaslight Club in the magazine — thousands of readers 
wrote in asking about gaining membership — gave a direct prod to 
begin the project. Hefner and Lownes realized there was a large 
market for a nightclub centered on the Playboy idea of pretty girls, 
fine food and drink, and sophisticated entertainment. They began to 
formulate plans. 49 

The first step involved bringing in someone with practical experi- 
ence. They contacted an old friend, Arnold Morton, who owned a 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


161 


club that Hefner and Lownes frequented on their nocturnal rambles. 
He agreed to join the project, and the trio divided responsibilities — 
Hefner and Lownes developed the concept and were responsible for 
overall management while Morton, in his words, handled the “meat 
and potatoes.” They also divided the shares of the new company with 
Lownes getting 25 percent, Morton 25 percent, Hefner 25 percent, 
and the magazine 25 percent. When the doors of the first Playboy 
Club swung open, it reflected Hefners recommendation: “The main 
thrust of our creativity is to bring the pages of Playboy to life.” 50 

The five-story club wove together thematic strands from Hefner s 
magazine and television show. It offered good food, generous drinks, 
and hip entertainment in a sophisticated atmosphere. Drawing upon 
the bachelor apartment fantasy, it contained dining areas styled the 
Living Room and the Playmate Bar, and large rooms for music and 
comedy shows called the Penthouse and the Library. The Cartoon 
Corner offered framed cartoons from Playboy, while an elaborate 
stereo system piped jazz throughout the structure. Wood-paneled 
walls, rich colors, and leather furniture enhanced the ambiance. 
A crucial aspect of the lifestyle formula lay in the illusion of exclusiv- 
ity. Members paid an initial fee of fifty dollars to become a lifetime 
keyholder and received a Playboy Key stamped with the familiar rab- 
bit head logo. “The Playboy Club is a meeting place for the most 
important, most aware, most affluent men of the community,” the 
magazine observed. A special publication for members appeared 
called VIP: The Playboy Club Magazine that carried stories about 
personnel, entertainers, and coming attractions. Such stratagems 
encouraged members to believe that they were part of a sophisti- 
cated urban elite. Even James Bond became a member, as revealed 
in Diamonds Are Forever. 51 

Throughout, of course, the club highlighted images of beautiful 
women and liberated sexuality. Its most notable feature became the 
Bunnies, young women who served as waitresses and hostesses in 
the various sections of the establishment. Chosen for their good looks 
and vivacious personalities, they included models, working girls, and 
a number of Playmates from Playboy. The Bunnies became a magnet 
for hordes of men eager to see magazine images in the flesh. Their 
attire did not disappoint. Originally, Hefner had wanted to present 
the Bunnies in short nightgowns or modified undergarments. But 
after discussion with Lownes, he decided to go with the rabbit theme. 
A seamstress prepared a prototype Bunny outfit: a one-piece, satin, 



162 


MR. PLAYBOY 


swimsuit-style garment that was low-cut on top and steeply raised on 
the sides to accentuate long legs. The later addition of bunny ears, a 
fluffy bunny tail, and bow tie and cuffs completed the ensemble . 52 

The Bunnies quickly emerged as key symbols in the diversifying 
Playboy empire. The fourth floor of the Playboy Mansion was con- 
verted into a dormitory where many of them found lodging while 
also ornamenting the weekly parties. Hefners brother, Keith, joined 
the organization to manage the female workforce. He developed an 
extensive list of protocols in the Playboy Club Bunny Manual , invent- 
ing the famous “bunny dip,” the unique maneuver whereby the wait- 
ress faced away from the table, arched her back, bent her knees and 
delivered drinks with a graceful arm motion. Bunnies were encour- 
aged to project a healthy sexuality, much like the girl-next-door aura 
of the Playmates, but were not allowed to see patrons after hours or 
even give out their phone numbers. Hefner needed to be extraor- 
dinarily careful to avoid any taint of sexual impropriety, and scandal 
would quickly produce accusations of lewdness or even prostitution. 
“If any of our girls date a customer, she gets fired,” Hefner told a 
newspaper. “We’ve got to keep it that way or the whole thing could 
come down around our ears .” 53 

The Chicago Playboy Club was an immediate hit. Patrons lined up 
around the block to get in, and within a year it had enrolled over fifty 
thousand keyholders. Over the next few years the clubs would expand 
into fifteen American cities and gain a membership of half a million. 
Such popularity reflected the growing appeal of the Playboy lifestyle 
to urban men, especially in such a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood 
form. As Keith Hefner observed, the clubs represented “the excite- 
ment of the pages of Playboy and ... let people get a glimpse of what 
the fantasy world was really all about.” The Playboy Club, of course, 
also magnified Hefner’s stature. Mr. Playboy featured prominently 
in news stories about these popular nightspots which not only repre- 
sented Playboys fantasy of the good life but extolled the celebrity of 
the man who personified it . 54 

But not all of Hefner’s efforts to promote himself as Mr. Playboy 
were successful. His expansion of a lifestyle empire with him at the 
center experienced two notable failures. Around the same time as 
these other endeavors, he set in motion Show Business Illustrated , a 
magazine devoted to entertainment. Covering films, theater, record- 
ing, nightclub acts, television, and books as well as gossip reports on 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


163 


the comings and goings of the stars, the magazine reflected Hefners 
long-standing fascination with Americas mass culture. “It will do 
for show business what Time does for news and Sports Illustrated 
for sports,” Hefner told the newspapers. He hired an editorial staff 
from New York and published the first issue in September 1961. The 
publication flopped almost immediately. A cluttered smorgasbord of 
entertainment news, brief reviews of every production under the sun, 
and sexy photos of beautiful women (but no nudes), the magazine 
appeared encyclopedic but it had no personality, no editorial stance, no 
special spark. After six months and only eight issues, he sold the mag- 
azine to a competitor and absorbed a loss of $1.5 million. 55 

A second failed project revealed much more about Hefners per- 
sonality and aspirations. In 1961, he became involved in a venture 
to make a Hollywood movie about his life and amazing success as 
publisher of Playboy. He had become friends with the actor Tony 
Curtis, and their conversations spawned the idea. Curtis was enthu- 
siastic; Hefner was ecstatic. After preliminary negotiations, Playboy 
announced the forthcoming movie in November 1961, and Variety 
confirmed that Columbia Pictures would finance and release the film, 
while Stanley Margulies would produce and Bernard Wolfe would 
write the screenplay. Curtis spent a couple of weeks in Chicago hang- 
ing around the magazine offices to observe Hefner in preparation for 
the role. 56 

It quickly became apparent, however, that the participants were 
not on the same page. Curtis and the studio envisioned a light com- 
edy about a guy with six girlfriends who constantly had to scramble in 
organizing his life to avoid embarrassing conflicts. Hefner had more 
serious themes in mind — Curtis sarcastically referred to the editors 
desire for “Dostoevsky in the nude” — and began to bombard the actor, 
writer, and producer with missives. Unused to the publishers massive 
memos, they were stunned when thirty-pagers began to arrive at their 
offices with disturbing regularity. They would explicate “the entire 
Playboy Philosophy, which he wants to dramatize in a six-hour movie, 
paragraph by paragraph,” said Curtis. “And I don’t even have to read 
them, I just have to weigh them to know that we’re never, ever going 
to make this movie.” 57 

The memos spoke volumes about Hefner’s perception of himself. 
He envisioned the film as a vehicle for a romanticized rendering of his 
own life — the young man from modest circumstances who overcame 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


the odds, liberated American society from life-choking prudery, and 
walked off into the sunset. Hefner outlined this triumphant fantasy, 
with himself as the star, in a memo to Curtis: 

It is the middle 1950s in Chicago, and a young man in his mid- 
twenties, a rather down-at-the-heels Brooks Brothers type, 
with button-down shirt frayed at the edges and buttons com- 
ing loose on his overcoat, is working for $60 dollars a week for 
a big, plush mens magazine. The young man is unhappy — but 
he has wild dreams for the creation of a magazine for the 
urban man. . . . [He successfully launches the publication and 
a national do-good group says the magazine is obscene; the 
Playmate of the Month is little better than a streetwalker. The 
group sues and there is a dramatic trial.] We get a chance for 
a wonderful court scene that has many of the emotional values 
of the beautiful court ending in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” 
and a similar judicial-type climax set in the Washington Senate 
in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” This climax offers all 
the opportunities for the evils and hypocrisy of censorship, 
prudery, and the bluenose view of life pitted against freedom, 
youth, a notion that sex is beautiful rather than dirty. . . . 
Through the stress and strain of it all, our hero has come to 
his senses and realized that it is truly the little secretary that 
he loves, and they wander out of that courtroom to live happily 
ever after. 

Hefner wanted to present to the public the film version of his life 
that he had already created in his own imagination. He wanted to 
make a movie about a movie running in his head. 58 

Hefners associates in the film venture were unreceptive. They 
plunged ahead with their own screenplay. Hefner disapproved. Two 
new writers, Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, came aboard to rework it 
and they turned in a revised version that Hefner also rejected, subse- 
quently firing off several long memos promoting his version. In early 
1963, a “final” draft of the screenplay appeared and production was 
set to begin. Hefner again objected, claiming that he had been shoved 
aside, and refused his approval. After several testy exchanges, the 
publisher and the studio agreed that shooting should be postponed. 
The project quietly faded away. 59 



LIVING THE FANTASY 


165 


Despite the failure of the movie, Hefners larger transformation 
into Mr. Playboy succeeded in creating a kind of fantasy fulfillment 
at the dawn of the 1960s. By remaking himself into an ideal young 
male sophisticate walking out of the pages of Playboy, he realized a 
dream of what his life should be that had been slowly taking shape 
since adolescence. But the public ramifications loomed even larger. 
By publicizing his exploits he stimulated a fantasy among a large 
audience that such a life was possible. Like a fictional British secret 
agent, a gang of hip Hollywood entertainers, and a charismatic young 
president, Hefner symbolized a growing desire among American 
men to grab the good things in life — sex, material abundance, style, 
success. In turn, this fed the desire of many women to grab on to 
such men. 

Hefner could not have been happier. As he wrote in a December 
1961 letter, “What does it feel like, being a living legend? Well, it 
feels just great!” 60 




PART III 


TRIUMPH 




9 


The Philosopher King 


T he crisp black-and-white film showed a young man with dark 
hair and an intense manner driving through the rainy streets of 
Chicago in his sleek white Mercedes convertible. As he sped 
along with windshield wipers clearing his vision and the vinyl top 
protecting him from the elements, his words came out to listeners in 
a voice-over. Noting that he was thirty-five years old and the creator 
of a $20 million empire centered on Playboy magazine, the driver 
exclaimed, “I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else in the world.” 
He contended that people should work and play hard because “you 
only get one time around in this old world, and if you don’t make the 
most of it you have no one to blame but yourself.” 

For the next twenty minutes, the film juxtaposed recurring images: 
on the one hand, a bash at the Playboy Mansion with loud music, 
sumptuous food, dancing revelers, and bikini-clad young women 
cavorting in the indoor swimming pool; on the other, an inspection of 
the Playboy offices, a survey of its publisher’s work routine, and brief 
interviews with colleagues. Throughout, the young man offered his 
views on liberated sexuality, the virtues of enlightened self-interest 
and the good life, and his own role as the spokesman of a new, restless 


169 



170 


MR. PLAYBOY 


generation. Radiating self-satisfaction, he concluded, “I consider 
myself to be, quite possibly, the luckiest human being in the world.” 

The Most, a 1961 documentary produced by a Canadian group, 
won several awards for its flashy, slightly satirical treatment of Hugh 
Hefner, the publishing sensation who had made Playboy an icon of 
modern, youthful urban sophistication. The film seemed to capture 
Hefners energy, focus, and sensibility while subtly suggesting in a 
variety of ways — his girlfriend repeatedly struggling with the word 
“intelligent” while being interviewed, several bored men dozing 
at the mansion party — a vacuous element in the perfect life. But 
Hefners enormous self-confidence left the most powerful impres- 
sion. Appearing as someone who saw himself as the very embodiment 
of the hip, swinging, trendy life in America, he proclaimed, “I have 
come to be seen as emblematic of the 1960s.” 1 

Not everyone was so impressed. “That man, strutting, preening, 
posing, and spouting nonsense, is a new kind of animated cartoon, a 
sort of mental Magoo,” said a venomous review in Newsweek. “The 
prince of playmates lives in an unspeakably vulgar playhouse with a 
swimming pool, and apparently, a perennial party.” But impressed or 
not, people were paying attention. A spate of publicity in newspapers, 
magazines, and television put Hefner firmly in the public spotlight 
early in the 1960s. 2 

Throughout these appearances, Hefner often elaborated his life- 
style message of sexual pleasure, material abundance, dedication to 
work, and enjoyment of leisure from the 1950s. But he also began 
to turn his magazine in a new direction in the early 1960s, addressing 
a number of controversial social, cultural, and political issues. Taking 
himself and Playboy more seriously as an influence on American val- 
ues, he began a lengthy, serial exposition of his worldview that raised 
extended commentary from many corners, especially the religious 
community. Ensconced in the comfort of the Playboy Mansion in 
the early 1960s — indeed, withdrawing deep into its pleasurable 
confines — the young editor became a kind of philosopher king. 


I 

With the success of Playboy, Playboys Penthouse, the Playboy 
Mansion, and the Playboy Club serving as a springboard, Hefner 
vaulted into the national limelight as major media outlets rushed 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


171 


to describe and assess his remarkable success. In this great glare of 
publicity, debates about the significance and merit of his ideas flared 
up as critics lined up to support or condemn. Hefner became the talk 
of the country. 

The big national magazines took the lead. Most often they com- 
bined disdain for the Playboy enterprise with grudging recognition of 
its popularity. In March 1961, Time ran a feature article that outlined 
Hefners successes with his magazine, clubs, and licensed products, 
while at the same time dismissing Playboy as sophomoric, “a sort 
of editorial whee,” and its publisher as “a living promotion stunt.” 
The Saturday Evening Post’s “Czar of the Bunny Empire” was even 
harsher. This in-depth examination recognized Hefner’s growing leg- 
end, but portrayed him as a fraud who traded on sleazy pictures of 
naked women while proclaiming high-minded ideals, crafted a debo- 
nair image to hide the social tastes of a rube, and projected a pub- 
lic persona of charm and wit while privately engaging in querulous 
outbursts of temper. Such stem disapproval, however, did not stop 
the magazine from running full-page ads in the New Yorker and the 
New York Times promoting its “Hef profile” of “Playboy’s boy wonder 
of the publishing world.” 3 

The Wall Street Journal offered a more detached analysis. It con- 
cluded that a formula of sex and sophistication, producing a strong 
identification with a young, growing audience, had created Hefners 
$20 million empire. The New Yorker, in one of its famous cartoons, 
offered another kind of affirmation. As a bride and groom stood at 
the altar preparing to take their vows, and a pair of rabbit ears poked 
up from the top of her veil, a seated guest turned to another and 
remarked, “He met her in some Chicago key club, I understand.” 
Smaller publications also joined the journalistic chase. Pageant, a 
celebrity magazine, and the Realist, an offbeat journal of culture 
and opinion, also profiled Hefner. His story gained an international 
dimension as stories popped up in Italy’s L’Espresso and L’Europeo, 
Germany’s ER, England’s Queen, and the Time magazine of South 
America, Vision. 4 

Another sign of Hefner’s prominence came in the send-ups of 
Playboy that began to appear. The humorist Art Buchwald sur- 
veyed the Bunny kingdom’s expansion in his nationally syndicated 
column — “Some people are afraid that Hefner may try to take over 
the United States, if not by force, at least by sex,” he wrote — while 
Mad magazine presented a parody issue called Playkid. It featured 



172 


MR. PLAYBOY 


a “Hideaway Clubhouse for Little League Bachelors,” surveyed the 
latest fashions in space helmets and baseball cards that “sophisti- 
cated first through fourth graders will want to include on their after- 
hours ‘must list’ for the school season,” and included a letter from a 
future Playmate who described herself as having “golden hair, hazel 
eyes, ruby-red lips, and sparkling silver braces on both my upper and 
lower teeth.” Aardvark , the collegiate satire magazine, published 
a fake Christian number titled Prayboy. Supposedly edited by 
Hugh M . Holy, it contained a food feature called “One Part Bread, 
Two Parts Wine,” a clothing piece titled “Black Is the Color of My 
Preachers Suit,” and a pictorial on “The Girls of the Holy Land.” An 
interview with “The Lord” — described as the star of the King James 
Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost — had him telling the questioner, 
“I know exactly what I’m going to say. In fact, I know exactly what 
you’re going to ask.” 5 

The Hefner media flurry also came on the airwaves. A variety of 
documentaries, profiles, and interviews appeared in venues such as the 
Canadian Broadcasting Company, NBC’s early morning Today show, a 
CBS talk show in Chicago called At Random, The Jack Paar Show, 
and Mike Wallace’s popular PM East, which included interviews with 
Hefner, Spectorsky, and Lownes as well as taped footage from inside 
the magazine’s offices. A comedic high point came on The Steve Allen 
Show when a Playboy Bunny appeared in a skit where she trained the 
host to serve in her job. As a mincing, wisecracking Allen donned 
the rabbit ears, learned to walk correctly with an enticing stroll, and 
practiced the “bunny dip,” the studio audience howled. 6 

By the early 1960s, news of Playboy and its publisher was reach- 
ing a vast new audience. Some treatments were hostile, but even 
unfavorable publicity has its merits, as the showman P. T. Barnum 
once observed. “Now and then some one would cry out humbug’ and 
‘charlatan,’ but so much the better for me,” he wrote. “It helped to 
advertise me, and I was willing to bear the reputation.” In fact, in this 
flood of stories, the allure of the forbidden appeared to have a more 
powerful appeal than righteous exhortations. In a modern culture 
pulsating with messages of individual self-fulfillment, chastisements 
of Playboy’ s licentiousness from stuffy cultural arbiters often had the 
ironic effect of encouraging what they condemned. 7 

At the center of this whirlwind of attention stood Hefner himself. In 
stories and interviews he stressed the Upbeat Generation’s desire for 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


173 


upward mobility and leisure, the virtues of unfettered individualism, 
and the need for a vigorous pleasure ethic in modern American life. 
Playboy, he insisted, was the voice of a restless, aspiring new spirit 
in the country that sought to embrace a life of abundance even as it 
sidestepped demands for middle-class, suburban conformity. “Life is 
a wonderful, exciting adventure, if we allow it to be. If we savor and 
fully enjoy each day of it,” he typically declared in one of his television 
appearances. “Trouble is, we too often defeat our own best chances 
for finding real satisfaction and happiness in life. There is a great 
tendency in our culture to live continually for tomorrow. And when 
you do that, tomorrow has a way of never coming.” 8 

Hefner advocated a code of robust sexuality. Reciting his by- 
now familiar formulation, sex meant pretty girls, romantic nights on 
the town, and physical and emotional joy. His magazine and the 
Playboy Clubs urged the open embrace of wholesome sex rather than 
conveying vulgar images of strippers, illicit liaisons, and shameful 
vices. “The guy brings the dream with him — he supplies the most 
important ingredient of all,” Hefner told a British journalist. “And the 
majority of guys are not looking for the kind of action that breaks up 
that dream. . . . Clean sex has a greater appeal than tawdry sex.” As he 
summarized in a 1962 appearance, “Anything that makes sex seem 
clean, healthy, desirable, and beautiful is good.” 9 

But the familiar proselytizing contained a new element of self- 
confidence that bordered on egotism. At various times, Mr. Playboy 
described himself as “without doubt the most successful man I ever 
met,” a “living legend,” and a modern F. Scott Fitzgerald who was 
“typical of the present generation.” Perhaps his most breathtaking 
comment came in The Most. Pondering his influence and achieve- 
ments, he concluded, “Genius is kind of a funny word. I suppose by 
definition I consider myself one — both intellectually and in terms of 
creativity.” 10 

Playboy’s growing prominence also triggered a backlash of nega- 
tive criticism. “Is the American man emotionally retarded, a perpet- 
ually snickering adolescent?” asked the conservative writer Russell 
Kirk. “The abuse of sexual images and enticements is a symptom of 
decadence in American life.” The Saturday Review derided Hefners 
“bunny-tailed utopia” as “the country of arrested adolescence.” 
Benjamin DeMott, a professor of English at Amherst, sneered at 
Playboy’s “vision of the whole man reduced to his private parts.” 11 



174 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Such denunciations touched a nerve. Convinced that Playboy’s 
critics were misrepresenting his views, Hefner decided to strike 
back. He began to ponder more deeply what he saw as his mission in 
American society. Inspired by the acclaim and fueled by the attacks, 
he decided to explain the philosophy behind his enterprise. 


II 

In December 1962, readers of Playboy encountered a new editorial 
series. The magazine’s rabbit head logo sat atop the tide, “The Playboy 
Philosophy,” while below it sat the authors name: Hugh M. Hefner. 
He noted that while his magazine had become the subject of much 
recent discussion, its views and images had been distorted. He vowed 
“to state our own editorial credo here, and offer a few personal obser- 
vations on our present-day society and playboy’s part in it.” As he 
observed in a private letter, “If playboy was to be either praised or 
damned for what it represents and believes in, I would rather have 
it for what we really do believe than what someone else says that we 
believe.” 12 

“The Playboy Philosophy” became the phrase that launched a 
thousand pages. Originally intended as a fairly brief statement, the 
project soon became an obsession and swelled beyond all proportion. 
The author holed up in the Playboy Mansion, poring over dozens of 
files filled with research material and staying up for days on end writ- 
ing, and rewriting, endless drafts of his thoughts on an array of social, 
cultural, political, legal, and sexual issues facing American society. By 
the time it ground to a halt, Hefners “statement” had appeared in 
twenty-five installments over a three-year period. 

A genuine sincerity and idealism initially prompted this undertak- 
ing. Convinced that mainstream American values needed to be exam- 
ined and reformed, Hefner sought dialogue and debate. “It is simply 
a pleasure — and a considerable one — to try to spell out one’s guiding 
principles,” he told a correspondent. “I hope that we can offer some 
ideas about moral responsibility, ethics, the importance of the indi- 
vidual, the need for greater emphasis on . . . the humane side of life 
that may start people thinking about some of those things.” 13 

But then a kind of mania set in as Hefner turned creation of the 
Playboy Philosophy into the journalistic version of the Bataan death 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


175 


march. Hidden away in his bedroom and writing for days without 
sleep, he became afflicted with a growing compulsion to explore 
every aspect, dig up every detail, and express every thought about 
the social or sexual problem at hand. The essays ballooned. Working 
at his bedroom desk on a Royal Standard typewriter, or perched atop 
his round bed surrounded by piles of documents, the author con- 
sulted elaborate files on birth control, womanization, the law and 
obscenity, divorce, abortion, and a host of similar topics. Several 
research assistants combed through books looking for relevant dis- 
cussions and quotations. Hefner sent a stream of his infamous memos 
demanding information on various topics ranging from the arcane to 
the impossibly vast: 

Please get me as much research as possible on earlier Catholic 
attitudes on sex — the Church used to be very liberal in the 
area of sex in earlier European days. 

Will you please have a staff member gather for me a nice 
list of famous men of history who, in addition to their other 
accomplishments, were noted for their high degree of sexual 
activity, either in or out of marriage? 

Can we tie the Renaissance in with sexual freedom and 
sexual vigor? If so, I would like some specifics not only in 
terms of sexual freedom and sexual totalitarianism, but 
also specific examples of what was accomplished in periods 
like the Renaissance in Europe, and what failed to occur dur- 
ing the Dark Ages and the Victorian period . 14 

New associate editor Nat Lehrman, who had been assigned to 
head the research staff, witnessed the process first hand. With an 
irreverent sign saying “If Hef Likes It, It’s Art” tacked behind his 
desk, the young journalist struggled to assist the publisher with 
his essays. Hefner agonized over every word, once subjecting 
Lehrman to a twenty-four-hour writing session where, near the end, 
he considered verbs, alternately writing and crossing out “said,” 
“stated, "“remarked,” and “observed.” An exhausted Lehrman mut- 
tered each time, “Sounds good to me.” Linally Hefner said sharply, 
“You’re not just trying to get out of here, are you?” Hefners haphazard 
use of others’ work also caused problems. He was particularly taken 
with two books — one titled Sex and the Law and the other Sex 



176 


MR. PLAYBOY 


and History — and quoted great chunks from them with little or no 
attribution. Eventually, both authors grumbled about having their 
work cribbed, but Lehrman headed off disaster by paying them in 
lieu of a lawsuit for plagiarism . 15 

Indeed, Hefners painstaking labors created exasperating prob- 
lems for Playboy. Preoccupied with his wri t ing and locked away in his 
mansion bedroom, the publisher neglected other important decision- 
making with the magazine. His installments of the Philosophy often 
arrived so late that they pushed the magazine over production dead- 
lines, driving the editors to distraction. A. C. Spectorsky, upon whose 
shoulders fell many of the difficulties, turned bitter, describing the 
mansion as “the Bunker,” the philosophy as “a grinding, endless bore,” 
and his own struggles as “the tortures of the damned.” According to 
Theo Spectorsky, Hefner spent “two years repeating himself, work- 
ing at a snails pace, fussing over every comma, weeks past dead- 
line almost every month, squirreled away inside his quarters at the 
Mansion, with Augie trying frantically to pry the word loose .” 16 

What did this Herculean labor produce? Mostly, Hefner elaborated 
themes he had been discussing for years in interviews — the liberated 
individuals need to enjoy material abundance, economic opportunity, 
leisure fulfillments, and sexual freedom; the emergence of a restless 
Upbeat Generation eager for such things; Playboy’s mission to pro- 
mote this agenda. All the while, he ransacked history for examples 
and unloaded bushels of quotes from philosophers and social thinkers 
to buttress his opinions. 

The first few installments meandered through discussions of 
American history and the cult of “the common man,” the influence 
of religion on modern values, capitalism versus communism, the 
history of sex in Western civilization, and disputes over obscenity, 
pornography, and censorship. Then Hefner turned to even broader 
questions of the competing claims of the individual and society, the 
role of reason and self-interest, the historical evolution of religious 
morality, and the history of sexual mores. During the concluding 
installments of the Playboy Philosophy, the author, obviously running 
out of steam, printed transcripts from four radio roundtables on “The 
American Sexual Revolution” in which he had participated . 17 

The final result was an enthusiastic, if rather pedestrian and unsys- 
tematic, recycling of ideas common to modern humanist liberalism. 
Hefner followed a well-trodden path in arguing that the good of the 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


177 


individual trumped most social considerations, worldly human affairs 
were more important than the afterlife, and traditions or institutions 
that unduly restricted individual expression should be dismantled. 
An unusually strong libertarian position defending the pursuit of self- 
interest, and an unusually daring emphasis on sexual freedom made 
for the most novel features of his essays. The Hefner credo was part 
John Stuart Mill, part Adam Smith, part Ayn Rand, and part popular 
Freudianism. 

If the content of Hefners essays was unremarkable, their style 
could be exasperating. While his unadorned prose could be crisp 
and illuminated with flashes of insight and passion, more often it was 
turgid and repetitive. The Hefner style incorporated great chunks of 
quotation (three pages verbatim of a description of Supreme Court 
justice Hugo Black’s views on free speech) and presented generaliza- 
tions that reached galactic proportions (“Modern American morality 
is an amalgamation of the superstitious paganism and masochistic 
asceticism of early Christianity; the sexual anxieties, feelings of guilt 
and shame, witch-hunting sadism and sex repression of the medieval 
Church; the desexualized courtly love of the troubadours; England’s 
Romantic Age, wherein love was presumed to conquer all; and the 
prohibitively strict, severe, joyless, authoritarian, unresponsive, 
book-banning, pleasure-baiting dogma of Calvinist Protestantism, 
Puritanism, and Victorianism.”). His consistent use of the “imperial 
we” — “we’ve decided it’s time to speak out ourself [sic] on what we 
believe in, and what we feel playboy represents in present-day 
society” — quickly became annoying as it imparted a pretentious 
quality to the essays. As Mort Sahl quipped, “Hef always wanted to 
impress upon me that he was writing the Philosophy himself. Which 
I had no doubts of after reading it.” 18 

The Playboy Philosophy elicited widespread commentary. Playboy 
readers offered much sympathetic appreciation, flooding the maga- 
zine with letters supporting the publisher’s attempts to construct a 
moral foundation for a modern lifestyle. They praised Hefner for 
presenting life-affirming views that, in the words of one, discredited 
the notion that “sex is evil, that pleasure is evil, that physical comfort 
and the accumulation of wealth is evil.” Another reader character- 
ized the Playboy Philosophy as “a 20th century version of Thomas 
Paine’s Age of Reason.” A third saw in Hefner’s musings “the hunger 
for a new philosophy as great as that which is inspiring the Sexual 



178 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Revolution itself.” Distinguished commentators also weighed in 
affirmatively. Albert Ellis, writer on psychology and sexual morality, 
praised Hefner for his “highly consequential and well-thought-out 
views” while Ralph Ginzburg, the provocateur and editor of Eros, 
offered congratulations on a weighty series that was “dealing the sin- 
gle most significant blow to the forces of censorship of any publica- 
tion in the history of the United States .” 19 

Rut Hefners controversial views also inspired much denuncia- 
tion. Some critics focused on what they saw as rampant hypocrisy 
in the Playboy Philosophy, arguing that he was straining to create a 
serious rationale for an enterprise obviously fueled by sex and profit. 
A newspaper columnist asked, “I wonder what your circulation figures 
would be if you were to eliminate some of the more arresting features 
such as, say, the monthly Playmate, the Party Jokes page, the Ribald 
Classic, the fashion studies and automobiles.” An essayist in the 
Realist observed brutally that Hefner s theorizing could not obscure 
the central appeal of his magazine, “namely, that Americans will pay a 
lot of money to look at tits.” Playboy was really a monument to “clever 
commercialism,” another critic noted, and Hefner s philosophy would 
remain “semi-fraudulent” until he addressed that fact . 20 

Other critics took a more philosophical bent. They argued that 
Hefner s stress on individual self-fulfillment overlooked the need for 
obligation and responsibility in society, while his stress on style and 
possessions ignored the more important virtues of love, respect, 
and soul. Reflecting “a certain emptiness that is the emptiness of 
necessity,” wrote one critic, Hefner propounded “an empty material- 
ism and cellophane hedonism.” Others excoriated his social ideal as 
“a fairyland of distorted values” and his pleasure-seeking as “a form of 
infantilism and narcissism.” Writing in the Antioch Review, an English 
professor described the Playboy Philosophy as a compendium of half- 
digested ideas, a sophomoric “hit-and-run gallop through psychology, 
economics, morality, education, religion, and sociology .” 21 

A long, thoughtful essay in a Sunday edition of the Chicago Sun- 
Times encapsulated many of these critical suspicions. “Runnies in a 
Tinseled Thinksville” took Hefner to task for peddling a sunny vision 
of life that ignored elements of pain and despair, without which there 
could be no understanding of happiness. With sex, the author main- 
tained, Hefner presented a false choice between stuffed-shirt prud- 
ery and recreational seduction. “Could it be that neither approach 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


179 


suggested by Hefner is the healthy, the natural and the right one?” 
he wrote. “Can a man be all for sex and all against Hefners brand of 
sex?” Citing William Faulkners observation that a view of life that did 
not take into account “love and honor and pity and pride and compas- 
sion and sacrifice” was doomed, said the author, “it is interesting that 
not one of them is discussed in the Playboy Philosophy.” 22 

Many critics also found the Playboy Philosophy’s literary style off- 
putting. The repetitive, bloated structure of the essays prompted the 
complaint that Hefner “has succeeded quite admirably in compress- 
ing a few ideas into many words.” Playboy ’ s old nemesis, Esquire, 
awarded one of its 1963 Dubious Achievement Awards to Hefner 
in the form of “a delicately fashioned, hand-embroidered sampler, 
embellished with warm and homely symbols in each corner sur- 
rounding these words: SHUT UP.” A scathing assessment in one 
journal noted mathematicians’ contention that if you place a monkey 
in front of a typewriter and give him an infinite amount of paper 
and time, sooner or later he will accidentally type out Shakespeare’s 
Hamlet. “A comic we know has a time-saving suggestion: get an 
infinite number of monkeys to do the job instantaneously,” it contin- 
ued. “Now we find that an infinite number of monkeys do exist and 
that they are employed as researchers by Hugh M. Hefner, editor of 
Playboy magazine.” 23 

Hefner responded to such attacks with typical seriousness. He 
established the Playboy Forum as a new venue in Playboy to dis- 
cuss issues raised by both critics and defenders. It made its debut in 
July 1963 and soon was filled with supportive letters from readers, 
along with responses from Hefner. In the spring of 1965, because 
of interest expressed by many college students and faculty, Hefner 
went on a campus speaking tour to defend his philosophical specula- 
tions. He appeared to packed auditoriums at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, 
Northwestern, and the University of North Carolina to discuss the 
Playboy Philosophy, usually in a panel-discussion format that included 
local professors, writers, and moralists. Finally, in 1965 Hefner 
founded the Playboy Foundation, a nonprofit agency that became an 
activist arm of the Playboy Philosophy. Involving itself in several land- 
mark endeavors — freeing a West Virginia man who had been impris- 
oned for having oral sex, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars 
to the Kinsey Institute and Masters and Johnson for sex research, 
assisting with the Roe v. Wade case that established women’s abortion 



180 


MR. PLAYBOY 


rights — the foundation proved that Hefner s philosophy was more 
than mere rhetoric: it was a heartfelt manifesto of social reform. 24 

Meanwhile, Hefner engaged in an extended battle of wits with a 
powerful enemy: the American religious community. The Playboy 
Philosophy had fingered Christianity as the source of most modem 
emotional and social woes, and many religious spokesmen responded 
in kind. The resulting debate between Playboy and the preachers 
provided a glimpse of the cultural ferment beginning to bubble in 
1960s America. 


Ill 

In the first installment of the Playboy Philosophy, Hefner focused 
attention on two religious writers: Harvey Cox, the famous theo- 
logian and author, who had denounced the magazine s advocacy of 
“recreational sex” in Christianity and Crisis ; and the Reverend Roy 
Larson, who accused Playboy of misleading young men in defining 
their goals, character, and values in the Methodist magazine Motive. 
When Hefner ended the series over two years later, he did so with 
several radio roundtables featuring himself, a priest, a minister, and 
a rabbi. This persistent engagement with religious figures made clear 
that the publisher s ideas about religion lay at the heart of both his 
formulations and the resulting controversy. 25 

Indeed, the Playboy editor minced few words in identifying 
Christianity as the bogeyman in the evolution of stultifying moral 
codes in Western civilization. The Playboy Philosophy blamed 
both Catholicism and Protestantism for nurturing repressive, restric- 
tive, hypocritical attitudes that had denied physical needs and stunted 
emotional health. Hefner contended that Christianity, while some- 
times engendering sympathy, understanding, and charity, more often 
had inspired “bloody wars,” kept millions “in abject poverty,” and 
promoted “the tyranny of man over his fellow man.” This indictment 
of Christianity reflected Playboy’s twin preoccupations — sex and 
material abundance. 26 

Christian doctrine, Hefner argued, had cultivated a prejudice 
against material accumulation and prosperity by opposing worldly 
things — possessions, money, success — to the ultimate goal of salvation. 
Since Christianity taught that poverty was holier than wealth, the 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


181 


pauper was more likely to receive Gods grace than the prosperous 
man. Such doctrines may have been compelling in an earlier age of 
material want, Hefner argued, but “they make very little sense in 
America today, however, where every man had ample opportunity to 
better himself .” 27 

Moreover, Hefner contended, Christianity had nurtured a poison- 
ous hostility to human sexuality. Its roots lay in a dualistic paradigm 
that posed the body and flesh as evil, and spirit and soul as virtuous. 
From the time of Saint Paul onward, sex was seen as a sinful bodily 
activity tolerated only for procreation. “By associating sex with sin, we 
have produced a society so guilt-ridden that it is almost impossible to 
view the subject objectively,” he noted of Christian culture . 28 

The Christian abhorrence of sinful flesh, Hefner continued, pro- 
duced something even worse — repression and censorship. Since 
bodily temptation could not be transcended, the church sought to 
regulate it with elaborate moral codes. Medieval Catholicism had 
been stringent, but it was Calvinism, according to the Playboy pub- 
lisher, that turned repression into an art form in America. It first 
clamped down on pleasure-seekers in the colonial era, and then 
persisted as a repressive force throughout American history. This 
Puritan heritage, Hefner believed, had created a monstrous alliance 
with the state to create anti-pleasure outrages such as blue laws, 
anti-evolution statutes, and Prohibition. Sex became a special tar- 
get as Christian zealots imposed severe legal restrictions on fornica- 
tion, cohabitation, adultery, and sodomy, as well as erotic literature, 
divorce, abortion, and birth control. In his view, it was “in our laws 
related to sex that we find the greatest church-state intrusion upon 
our personal freedom .” 29 

Ultimately, Hefner confronted religion in the name of reason. 
A humanist and rationalist, he disdained what he saw as the blind faith 
and superstition driving Christian doctrine. “We believe in a moral and 
law-abiding society,” he noted at one point in the Philosophy, “but one 
in which the morality and the laws are based upon logic and reason 
rather than mysticism or religious dogma.” Sexuality provided a telling 
example. Irrationally insisting that sexual activity be strictly limited 
to marriage, he contended, the church overlooked the obvious sexual 
desires and needs of unmarried people. By simply saying that “sex for 
all these people is wrong, is taboo, in truth, religion has not satisfac- 
torily come to grips with the problem as it exists,” he wrote . 30 



182 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Christianity, in Hefner’s worldview, ran counter to the American 
Way of Life with its values of democracy, self-reliance, and success- 
seeking. As he argued passionately in the Playboy Philosophy, 

Religion is based upon faith; democracy is based upon reason. 
Americas religious heritage stresses selflessness, subservience 
to a greater Power and the paying of homage to Him in long- 
established, well-defined, well-organized ways; democracy 
teaches the importance of self, a belief in oneself and ones 
own abilities. Religion teaches that man should live for others; 
our democracy’s free enterprise system is based on the belief 
that the greatest good comes from men competing with one 
another. . . . 

Most organized religion in the U.S. is rooted in a tradition 
that links man’s body with evil, physical pleasures with sin and 
pits man’s mind and soul against the devils of the flesh; the 
principles underlying our democracy recognize no such con- 
flict of body, mind, and soul. 31 

In part, Hefner’s animus toward Christianity flowed from a rejec- 
tion of his religious upbringing. As an adolescent, he had become 
disenchanted with his parents’ beliefs and “I’m still reacting,” he con- 
fessed in an interview. Rut his broadsides also reflected a broader 
ferment in American Christianity as the 1960s unfolded. In a growing 
leisure culture of abundance since World War II, growing numbers of 
mainstream Protestants and Catholics began to question traditional 
religious strictures against material and sexual pleasure. Moreover, a 
dissenting sensibility associated with the civil rights movement and 
progressive politics created pressures in behalf of social activism 
within churches. The result was a swelling crisis as many believers 
began to question the relevance of traditional Christian values for 
modern society. Such controversy culminated in the dissident “God 
is Dead” movement at mid-decade. Amid this turmoil, powerful 
defenders of Christianity marshaled their forces and lashed out at 
critics. 32 

Hefner became a key target. In the early 1960s, Christian tra- 
ditionalists attacked the Playboy Philosophy in such numbers that 
an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Playboy and 
the Preachers,” concluded, “If Playboy has not exactly discovered 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


183 


religion, religion has discovered Playboy.” Some religious critics 
simply blasted Hefner as a purveyor of “barnyard morality,” but 
others proceeded more thoughtfully. 33 

They took the Playboy publisher to task for a superficial under- 
standing of theology. They complained that he failed to grasp the 
influence of Neoplatonism in medieval Christianity and seemed 
totally unaware of Martin Luther’s “earthy appraisal of man’s sexual 
nature.” He failed to appreciate that the New Testament affirmed that 
“life in the flesh” was good, even delightful as long as sex took place 
within the institution of marriage. But critics were most distressed by 
Hefner’s treatment of Puritanism. They contended, often heatedly, 
that since American Christianity had jettisoned Puritan ideas in all of 
the mainstream denominations by the early 1800s, Hefner was tilting 
at theological windmills. The publisher, concluded one writer, was 
“willing to tell the religious tradition of the West to go to hell, even 
though he badly misunderstands that tradition.” 34 

In fact, some traditionalists contended that Hefner had attempted 
to create a “substitute religion” for his young, urban audience: Playboy 
served as its Bible, the bunny logo as its sacred symbol, the Playboy 
Clubs as its “sacred temples,” and the Bunnies as its “priestesses.” 
Playboy even had a Lord’s Prayer, said one critic: 

Our Fathers, who art in Madison Avenue and Ohio Street, 
hallowed be thy names. May Thy work and influence flourish, 
and may Thy will be done, in Peoria as well as in Manhattan. 

Give us this day our daily Martini — dry and smooth — and 
forgive us our goofs, even as we try to overlook the goofs of 
others. And, for heaven’s sake, our Lords, take us into tempta- 
tion and deliver us from the Puritans. 

For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory — if 
not forever, at least until someone sharper than you comes 
along. Amen and Amen. 35 

Hefner’s secular religion, according to its opponents, promoted a 
frivolous hedonism. Clerics contended that pleasure and recreation 
were the only good in the Playboy moral universe. Sex served as 
a form of entertainment and women became merely “the grandest 
of all consumer goods.” As a chaplain summarized in the Catholic 
World , the Playboy Philosophy represented “the elevation of the flesh 



184 


MR. PLAYBOY 


and the material to the level of the end in itself — a contemporary 
idolatry.” 36 

The Playboy Philosophy also dehumanized people, according to 
many religious critics. By worshiping materialism and the body while 
ignoring matters of the spirit and soul, Hefner reduced people to 
less than fully human. Moreover, his philosophy isolated the indi- 
vidual and weakened the possibility of genuine, meaningful relation- 
ships with others. Real sex, one essayist argued, reflected a yearning 
for emotional connection combining “eros (which loves the worth 
of the other person) and agape (which loves the ‘authentic being’ of 
the other person).” Hefner’s view of sex, to the contrary, reflected 
only a sterile, selfish individualism, fueled by bodily desires, that was 
unable to make a broader human connection. As one critic inquired 
pointedly, “Is it not curious that a magazine so interested in sex is 
singularly silent on the family?” 37 

Other religious commentators rushed to Hefner’s defense. About 
half of the clergymen who wrote in to the Playboy Forum supported 
the Playboy Philosophy, with a significant portion being Unitarian 
ministers, a small, liberal denomination. A Methodist college chap- 
lain exclaimed, “The position you take is more authentically Christian 
than much that is heard from pulpits today.” A Pittsburgh Theological 
Seminary professor proposed that Hefner endow a Playboy Chair of 
American Church History and noted, “I would be delighted beyond 
measure to occupy such a chair.” A minister praised the publisher 
from his pulpit in 1964, arguing that he had “dared to question the 
life-denying philosophies” of the Western tradition. In his view, 
the Playboy Philosophy had converged with a “liberal religious ideal” 
to affirm that “the chief end of life is to glory man and enjoy him 
forever.” 38 

The religious reactions, both positive and negative, thrilled 
Hefner. He concluded that he was being taken seriously, noting that 
his essays had provided “a catalyst for a new discussion and exami- 
nation of American social and sexual mores” that involved “newly 
acquired theological, philosophical, medical, psychological, and soci- 
ological insights.” He also took action. He offered steep discounts 
to any clergymen who subscribed to Playboy. He also sent Anson 
Mount to study at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Sewanee, 
Tennessee. Mount emerged as an official spokesman in a long series of 



THE PHILOSOPHER KING 


185 


public appearances where he defended the theological implications 
of the Playboy Philosophy. 39 

By the mid-1960s, religious hostility to Hefner and his Playboy 
Philosophy began to wane as a growing tide of social activism pushed 
liberal Protestantism in his direction. A 1964 radio roundtable in 
New York City, for instance, emerged as an exercise in searching 
for common ground. Three local clerics — Father Norman O’Connor; 
Reverend Richard Gary, an Episcopal minister; and Rabbi Marc 
Tannenbaum — joined Hefner for a discussion of religious morality 
and premarital sex, adultery, and birth control. A delighted Hefner 
celebrated their lack of moral certainty. “Whatever difficulty each 
of you may have had in delineating an absolute sex standard or 
code of conduct for your respective religions is a positive reflection, 
I think, of the soul-searching and re-evaluation taking place within 
both religious and secular society,” he declared. 40 

The pages of Playboy reflected this rapprochement with liberal 
Christianity. In 1966, the Reverend William Hamilton contributed 
an article on “The Death of God” that acclaimed this liberating event 
for empowering humans to solve their own problems, based on the 
example of Jesus of Nazareth. The following year, the magazine con- 
vened “The Playboy Panel: Religion and the New Morality,” which 
brought together a distinguished group of progressive clergy. They 
ranged widely over the contemporary landscape, agreeing that mod- 
em life demanded a reformulation of religious morality to include 
situational ethics and greater latitude for sexual expression. 41 

Harvey Cox, however, perhaps best represented liberal Christianity 
and its accommodation with Playboy in the 1960s. An early critic of 
the magazine with his influential 1961 essay, “Playboys Doctrine 
of Male,” by 1967 he appeared in the conciliatory Playboy Panel. 
Meanwhile, he had become a sparring partner for Hefner at several 
public forums. In an appearance at Cornell, he noted that he had 
become a fan of the magazine because of its committed engagement 
with moral questions in recent years. Cox became a contributor to 
Playboy, penning an article on the “Revolt in the Church,” which 
insisted “that theological doctrines and religious forms we have 
inherited from the past have reached the end of their usefulness,” 
and “For Christ’s Sake,” which urged Christians to embrace “the 
revolutionary portent of Jesus.” 42 



186 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefner s “Playboy Philosophy” and his extended encounter with 
the tribunes of American Christianity denoted a serious new role 
for the upstart publisher and his magazine in the 1960s. No longer 
just a venue offering entertainment for men or a tour guide for jaunts 
through Americas leisure culture, it was becoming a journalistic seis- 
mograph measuring deeper rumblings beginning to shake the cul- 
tural foundations of postwar America. Within a short time, as Playboy 
confronted a host of social and political issues, that seismographic 
needle would swing full tilt. 



10 


The Happiness 
Explosion 


T he prose was alternately elegant and jarring, the tone slightly 
surreal, the punctuation wild and swirling, the phrases cracking 
like staccato rimshots. Tom Wolfe, avatar of the “New Journalism,” 
had come to Chicago in 1965 to explore the singular world of Hugh 
Hefner. He spent time at the Playboy Mansion observing the editor 
in his bedroom headquarters, trying to capture the essence of one of 
the blazing new symbols of what he called “The New Life Out There” 
in modern America. He published the result in the Sunday magazine 
of the New York Herald Tribune. 

According to Wolfe, Americans had chased wealth and social 
advancement for generations before jettisoning the old status games 
in the economic boom of the 1950s and early 1960s. “They’re using 
a combination of Americas great postwar mass luxuries — time, 
money, and technology,” he wrote, “to create avant-garde styles of 
living that make New York’s culturati and fashionati look like leftovers 
from a 19th-century Rumanian card dance.” They had turned their 


187 



188 


MR. PLAYBOY 


households into consumer havens and created “discreet and rather 
marvelous electronic worlds.” 1 

Hugh Hefner exemplified this new lifestyle. Perched on an enor- 
mous, revolving bed and dressed in pajamas, slippers, and robe, he 
kept at his fingertips dozens of dials and switches to move the bed, 
operate the television, adjust the hi-fi, dim the lights, and manage the 
videotaping system. According to Wolfe: 

Hefners genius has been to drop out of the orthodox status 
competition and to use money and technology and to convert 
his habitat into a stage and to get on the stage, not in the spec- 
tator seats, and to be the undisputed hero himself. Through 
the more and more sophisticated use of machines, Hefner, 
and to a lesser degree millions of . . . homemakers outside of 
New York have turned their homes into wonderlands, almost 
complete status spheres all their own. . . . 

What Hefner has been offering is not merely a fantasy of 
some kind of potentate s serving of sex but also a fantasy of a 
potentate s control of the environment — all of a sudden made 
possible by the new lumpen middle-class style of life. 

As a new kind of royalty — Wolfe dubbed him the “King of the 
Status Drop-Outs,” the “Consumer King” — Hefner represented a 
new kind of American. Rejecting many traditional norms of behav- 
ior and mobilizing affluence to pursue personal contentment and 
gratification, he, like many of his fellow citizens, had detonated a 
“Happiness Explosion.” 2 

Many others agreed that Hefner represented a mutinous spirit 
arising in America. He had lured Americans to “enjoy what they have 
always frowned upon: hedonism . . . unmarried sex . . . and suave 
pseudo-intellectualism,” said Life. Look disapprovingly quoted his 
declaration that publishing Playboy was like “waving a flag of free- 
dom, like screaming ‘rebellion’ under a dictatorship.” The cultural 
critic Malcolm Muggeridge concluded that Hefner sought “the 
abandonment of the Judeo- Christian view of sex.” In other words, 
the Playboy publisher increasingly appeared as not just a purveyor 
of illicit pictures, but as a social subversive. 3 

Hefner s evolving image was an early sign of a larger discontent in 
American society. A spirit of rebellion was growing by the mid-1960s that 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


189 


combined impatience with traditional restraints, disapproval of long- 
standing hierarchies, and desires for personal fulfillment. According to 
the historian David Farber, Americas restless affluence had brought 
the belief that “the old rules of scarcity and traditional values of thrift 
and delayed gratification no longer held. . . . Cultural authority — the 
power to set the rules of proper conduct and behavior — was up for 
grabs.” A cultural cauldron of ferment had begun to bubble in 1960s 
America, and no one seemed to know whether the end result would 
be intoxicating, explosive, or both. Hefner didn’t know either, but he 
sensed that Playboy would be in the thick of the action. 4 


I 

Throughout the early 1960s, Playboy continued addressing familiar 
concerns with sex, consumption, and entertainment. Erotic themes, 
of course, remained front and center stage as readers encountered 
many old standbys — the Playmate of the Month, the Ribald Classic, 
Playboy’s Party Jokes, the Vargas Girls drawings. Special features 
included “The Girls of New York,” “The Girls of the Riviera,” 
and, as the magazine’s contribution to Cold War thaw, “The Girls 
of Russia.” “A Toast to Rikinis” showcased the female form, as did 
celebrity pictorials on “The Nudest Jayne Mansfield” and “Rrigitte 
Rardot: The Sex Kitten Grows Up.” The adult cartoon strip Little 
Annie Fanny debuted in October 1962, while “Sex in the Cinema,” a 
yearly roundup of erotic vignettes from the movies compiled by the 
film critics Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert, began in April 1965. 

In similar fashion, the magazine continued its advocacy of refined 
consumption and stylish living. Instructional articles on French cook- 
ing, stereo equipment, and purchasing modem art appeared alongside 
old favorites such as “Attire” by Robert L. Green, “Food” by Thomas 
Mario, and “Man at His Feisure,” by FeRoy Neiman. A new feature 
in 1960, “The Playboy Advisor,” promised to “answer your questions 
on a wide variety of topics of interest to the urban man — from fash- 
ion, food and drink, hi-fi and sports cars to dating dilemmas, taste 
and etiquette.” Playboy’s advertisements, as they had done for years, 
enhanced the fantasy of bountiful modern living, as ads for Rallantine 
scotch, Wembley ties, Renauld sunglasses, Kaywoodie pipes, and 
Munsingwear pajamas and robes adorned the magazine. 5 



190 


MR. PLAYBOY 


On the entertainment front, “Playboy After Hours” continued 
previewing movies, plays, and music while pieces on figures such 
as Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton kept readers 
abreast of the hottest celebrities. “On the Scene” focused on new, 
young entertainers and artists such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Stanley 
Kubrick, and Bob Dylan. The “Pigskin Preview” and the “Playboy 
Jazz Poll” remained popular annual features. The October 1963 issue 
began the serialization of Lenny Bruce s controversial autobiography, 
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. 

Playboy enhanced its literary reputation for short fiction through- 
out the early 1960s. Old friends Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, 
Charles Beaumont, and Ken Purdy were joined by younger writers 
such as Bruce Jay Friedman, Irwin Shaw, Philip Roth, and John le 
Carre. Pieces by prominent artists and authors such as Henry Miller, 
Pablo Picasso, and Bertrand Russell also graced the magazine s pages, 
while provocative cultural criticism came from the likes of Alfred 
Kazin and Leslie Fielder. 6 

But Playboy’s traditional formula also expanded significantly from 
1960 tol965. “The Playboy Panel,” inaugurated in November 1960, 
presented a venue for debating controversial public issues. Under its 
auspices, Ralph Ginzburg, Norman Mailer, and Otto Preminger pon- 
dered “Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts,” while Marquis 
Childs, Senator Jacob Javits, and Vance Packard traded views on 
“Business Ethics and Morality.” 7 

The famous “Playboy Interview,” which debuted in September 
1962, used a lengthy question-and-answer format to attract not only 
entertainers — Miles Davis, Billy Wilder, Frank Sinatra, Richard 
Burton — but figures in politics, arts and letters, journalism, and phi- 
losophy. Indian head of state Jawaharlal Nehru, philosopher Jean-Paul 
Sartre, labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, and pop sensations the Beatles all 
became subjects. “The Playboy Forum,” a new feature created in July 
1963 to encourage debate over Hefner s serialized Playboy Philosophy, 
underlined Playboy’s growing engagement with contemporary social 
issues. 8 

The magazine s growth spearheaded a larger expansion of the 
company. A second Playboy Club opened in Miami, a third in New 
Orleans, and by 1965 additional venues had appeared in Phoenix, 
New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, 
Atlanta, and Kansas City. A minor disruption came when Victor 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


191 


Lownes departed the company in late summer 1962 after clashing 
with Keith Hefner, who had assumed a managerial position with the 
Playboy Clubs. The volatile Lownes, ever jealous of his favored posi- 
tion, went after Hefner s younger brother. After a particularly rancor- 
ous tirade accusing Keith of mismanagement, the older brother put 
his foot down. “You know, Victor,” he said, “if you have nothing else 
to do with your time but do this kind of horseshit, you must not be 
doing your job.” Not long after that, Lownes resigned. 9 

The New York club sounded the only sour note. A city commis- 
sion, headed by a devout Catholic, refused to grant a cabaret license 
because of scantily clad waitresses. After an appeal, a state Supreme 
Court judge ordered the issuing of the license, observing that “it is 
not incumbent upon the petitioner to dress its female employees in 
middy blouses, gymnasium bloomers, turtleneck sweaters, fishermans 
hip boots, or ankle-length overcoats” to satisfy the commissioners 
personal moral code. A few months later, Life magazine broke a story 
exposing the New York State Liquor Authority for engineering shake- 
downs and payoffs from bars, clubs, and liquor stores. It emerged that 
the Playboy Club had been forced to pay a tribute of some $79,000 
to get a liquor license. Hefner issued a statement explaining that his 
company had paid out of necessity, but then subsequently exposed 
the wrongdoing to the district attorney and a grand jury. In a trial on 
corruption charges brought against several state officials, Playboy was 
vindicated as being the victim of extortion and blackmail. The club 
had a gala opening on December 8, 1962. 10 

Other Playboy projects flourished. Playboy Tours offered vacation 
packages while The Playboy Gourmet appeared as a handbook for food 
and drink. The bunny logo emblazoned a long list of items: jewelry, 
clothing, calendars, bar accoutrements, keychains, lighters, and golf 
equipment. The Bedside Playboy collected the best articles and stories 
from the magazine, while the LeRoy Neiman Portfolio and the Alberto 
Vargas Portfolio presented a collection of the artists’ drawings from 
the magazine. On September 28, 1964, the Playboy Theatre opened 
in Chicago after a complete refurbishing of the old Surf Theater. The 
following spring, Hefner purchased the lease on the famous Palmolive 
Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for $2.7 million. After exten- 
sive renovation, Playboy occupied about 25 percent of the thirty-seven- 
floor building, rechristened it the Playboy Building, and made the 
huge beacon that swept out over the city from atop it the magazine s 



192 


MR. PLAYBOY 


calling card. A few months later, Helen Gurley Brown, author of Sex 
and the Single Girl , reshaped Cosmopolitan into a female version of 
Playboy , n 

Hefner s synergistically expanding empire produced soaring prof- 
its. The 1964 annual report indicated that magazine sales had reached 
$2.4 million and were expected to reach $3 million by early 1965. 
Advertising sales climbed dramatically as Playboy roped in new main- 
stream clients such as Goodyear Tires, Falstaff Brewing, Admiral TV, 
Faberge, and Schick Razors. Total sales from magazine circulation, 
advertising, and subsidiary products totaled nearly $21 million; from 
the Playboy Clubs over $12 million; and from Playboy products a bit 
over $1 million. This represented an increase of 43 percent over the 
previous year. 12 

Hefner maintained his position atop Playboy’s hierarchy. As pub- 
lisher, editor, and guiding light, he controlled everything about the 
magazine, from editorial policies to visual images to every aspect of 
the operation. Nothing about Playboy escaped his attention, and a 
barrage of lengthy memos disclosed a perfectionism bordering on 
compulsion. 

Hefner initiated the Playboy Advisor in 1960 with a full set of 
instructions on how to formulate answers to problems of dating, din- 
ing, and dressing. He rode herd on the column, critiquing both the 
answers (they often required more punch and color) and the editing 
of the letters (a pathetic overtone often needed to be scrubbed). He 
also monitored special projects such as the “Playboy Pads” series and 
“Sex in Cinema” series. 13 

Hefner regularly tackled visual issues in the magazine. In a long 
1962 missive on Playmate photos, he instructed that the reader should 
“feel as though he really knows the girl — he understands something 
about her inner thoughts, her hopes and dreams, her fears, and her 
aspirations.” Around the same time, he composed a nineteen-page, 
single-spaced critique of the graphics and design of the previous 
years magazine. Proceeding issue by issue, picture by picture, draw- 
ing by drawing, he analyzed in incredible detail every image that a 
reader had seen and suggested improvements. 14 

Hefners attention extended into all areas of the Playboy empire 
as well. He kept an eye on the management of the Playboy Clubs and 
personally approved every piece of Playboy merchandise and every 
Playboy Books project. Even minor undertakings like the Playmate 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


193 


Calendar prompted him to chastise the photo and art departments 
for failing to work more cohesively and carefully. 15 

The tiniest detail drew his attention. One memo dictated that “for 
all receptionists, on all floors, in all of the Playboy Buildings, abso- 
lutely no gum chewing is to be allowed during the working day while 
they are at their desks.” Another instructed that two suits of armor 
at the Playboy Mansion needed to be cleaned and remounted, while 
“some chain mail for the front pelvic area should be placed on the 
older suit in place of the velvet skirt that is now on it.” He went 
through every bedroom and apartment in the mansion providing 
directions on how each should be set up in terms of decor, furniture, 
painting, towels and washcloths, ashtrays, keys, and rental fees. 16 

Under Hefners leadership, Playboy grew bigger, more influential, 
and more profitable in the early 1960s. In so doing it relied upon 
many familiar elements to provide “entertainment for men,” but it 
also began to modify its traditional agenda in significant ways. Few 
would have predicted it in earlier years, but the publisher slowly 
entered the world of public affairs. 


II 

As the new decade unfolded, Hefner, in his words, decided that if 
the magazine was to grow “then we should be paying attention to 
major social issues that were keeping a good number of people from 
enjoying the life we were espousing in the rest of the magazine.” The 
Playboy Philosophy reflected this new concern with matters more 
weighty than techniques of seduction, dining etiquette, and the lat- 
est cut of evening wear. But Hefner and his magazine also caught a 
larger liberationist spirit that was blowing through America in the 
early 1960s and shaking the shutters of tradition. The magazine began 
to promote a liberal activism that advocated not a radical overhaul 
of the socioeconomic system, but breaking down barriers to provide 
greater, freer access to it. Playboy’s positions represented an official 
counterculture of the enlightened, sophisticated, and affluent. 17 

The arrival of several new, youthful editors helped sharpen 
Playboy’s new profile. In the early 1960s, Spectorsky hired Sheldon 
Wax, Murray Fisher, and Nat Lehrman to bring fresh perspectives 
and energy to the magazine. They reinforced its new social and 



194 


MR. PLAYBOY 


political sensibility and influenced its liberal bent. “We were doing 
very interesting things, particularly in the sexual area and in the civil 
liberties and civil rights area in the early Sixties,” Lehrman recalled 
later. “There were things happening, ideas were opening up. Playboy 
was always a step ahead of those ideas.” 18 

New kinds of articles began to appear. Paul Goodman wrote a 
scathing critique of the nations school system and J. Paul Getty 
penned a series of articles on business; both agreed that the quest for 
economic security had created a conformity that was choking initia- 
tive and creativity in America. In “The Age of Overbreed,” Sir Julian 
Huxley warned that population growth was threatening to overwhelm 
both physical resources and social structures around the globe. 19 

In cultural affairs, Terry Southern, the controversial author and 
playwright, contended that movies had supplanted the novel because 
of their superior sensory capabilities and willingness to tackle contem- 
porary problems. The burgeoning drug culture attracted attention. 
Dan Wakefield examined the history of marijuana use, suggesting its 
virtues as well as vices, while Richard Carter explored Americans’ love 
affair with pharmaceuticals — pills, potions, capsules, ointments — as 
the pathway to perfection in body and spirit. 20 

Playboy turned its attention to politics. In 1963, William F. Buckley 
and Norman Mailer jousted over “The Role of the Right Wing in 
America Today.” Buckley defended conservatives’ perception of 
unraveling moral values and a willingness to coddle communist 
authoritarianism in mainstream society while Mailer characterized 
conservatism as little more than a “contradictory stew of reactionar- 
ies and individualists, of fascists and libertarians.” In “The Liberal 
Dilemma,” the noted commentator Marquis Childs argued that 
modem progressives needed to venture beyond the comfortable con- 
fines of the New Deal tradition in addressing modem problems. 21 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Playboy s heightened social 
awareness came in the area of race relations. Hefner’s longtime sup- 
port for racial equality and the civil rights movement laid the ground- 
work. In his television show, Playboy’s Penthouse, he had insisted on 
booking black acts and mixing white and black guests. Conversing 
on the air with the Gateway Singers, a music group with three white 
men and a black woman, he discussed their inability to get network 
bookings because of the racial mix. When several southern televi- 
sion stations refused to carry the show, Victor Lownes told the press, 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


195 


“Hefner and I aren’t going to back down on this issue. Television can 
be a great force in ending discriminatory nonsense. . . . Most of the 
complaining letters we get about it are from idiots.” 22 

In the early 1960s, Hefner supported Sammy Davis Jr.’s contro- 
versial marriage to May Britt, a white woman. He attended a benefit 
for Martin Luther King Jr. in New York City and made a significant 
contribution. With the launching of the Playboy Clubs, Hefner put a 
firm policy of racial integration into place. Black keyholders were 
welcome and black comedians such as Dick Gregory, George Kirby, 
Slappy White, and Flip Wilson were booked regularly. Controversy 
flared in 1961 over the admission of blacks to the newly opened New 
Orleans club. An article in the Village Voice exposed the fact that 
the nightclub, which had been franchised to local owners, was refus- 
ing admission to African Americans. Hefner fired off a long letter to 
the editor explaining that Playboy was “a liberal organization that is 
being forced to comply with a local situation” in New Orleans. He 
reassured that all efforts were being made to integrate the club as 
soon as possible. Indeed, within a short time the parent company had 
repurchased the New Orleans club, as well as the Miami club, from 
the franchise holders and put integrated policies into place. 23 

African Americans, especially in Chicago, voiced their apprecia- 
tion. Articles in the black press praised Playboy ’ s nondiscriminatory 
hiring policies and quoted Hefner: “I personally accept other human 
beings, in both my personal and business world, on the basis of indi- 
vidual merit and without regard to their race, color, nationality, or reli- 
gion.” In 1962 Hefner received the “Brotherhood Award” from one 
Chicago group and the “Good American Award” from another for his 
commitment to “the fundamental right of equality of opportunity in 
employment without regard to color, creed, sex, or national origin.” 24 
Hefner’s relationship with Dick Gregory, the controversial black 
comedian, exemplified his racial stance. The Chicago Playboy Club 
hired Gregory, then an unknown local comedian, to do a show in 1961 
and he quickly became a favorite with his irreverent routine focusing 
on American racial tensions. “Segregation isn’t all bad,” he would say. 
“Have you ever heard of a wreck where the people on the back of the 
bus got hurt?” Or, “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if I knew they were 
going to a friendly country.” Hefner remained a friend and supporter 
when the comedian became an outspoken civil rights activist, and 
wrote the introduction for Gregory’s book From the Back of the Bus 



196 


MR. PLAYBOY 


(1962). In the summer of 1964, Hefner even “guaranteed” a $25,000 
reward offered by Gregory for information leading to the discovery 
of three missing civil rights workers in Mississippi. 25 

Hefners civil rights stance was replicated in Playboy in the early 
1960s. He encouraged staffers to solicit African American Playmates. 
“If a girl is really beautiful, I think she ought to prove popular with 
our readers, whatever her race,” he wrote. The first black Playmate, 
Jennifer Jackson, appeared in March 1965. Playboy Interviews with 
prominent figures on the civil rights scene such as Gregory, King, and 
Cassius Clay appeared. 26 

The most dramatic Playboy interviews came with two figures 
standing as ideological bookends on the race issue. In May 1963, 
Malcolm X aired his militant message of black separatism, declar- 
ing, “I don’t know when Armageddon is supposed to be. But I do 
know that the time is near when the white man will be finished. 
The signs are all around us.” Then George Lincoln Rockwell, leader 
of the American Nazi Party, expounded his vicious creed of white 
supremacy. Interviewed at his compound by the African American 
journalist Alex Haley, he kept a pearl-handled revolver sitting on the 
table next to him as he denounced blacks and Jews. The exchanges 
were both chilling and memorable: 

Rockwell: It’s nothing personal, but I want you to under- 
stand that I don’t mix with your kind, and we call your race 
“niggers.” 

Haley: I’ve been called “nigger” many times, Commander, 
but this is the first time I’m being paid for it. So you go right 
ahead. What have you got against us “niggers”? 

Rockwell: I just think you people would be happier in 
Africa back where you came from. . . . Equality may be the 
stated purpose [of the civil rights movement], but race mixing 
is what it boils down to in practice, and the harder you people 
push for that, the madder white people are going to get. 27 

Playboy’s sensitivity to racial issues particularly influenced two 
articles. In July 1962, Nat Hentoff presented “Through the Racial 
Looking Glass,” an impassioned plea for understanding the new mili- 
tancy emerging in the African American community. It explained 
“the spiraling pride of race among American Negroes” and their 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


197 


bitterness about the slow progress on civil rights and the persistence 
of economic discrimination. In a very different kind of piece, James 
Baldwin, the eminent black writer, discussed his artistic efforts to 
explore the subject of race. “The reality I am trying to get at,” he con- 
cluded movingly, “is that the humanity of this submerged population 
[of African Americans] is equal to the humanity of anyone else, equal 
to yours, equal to that of your child.” 28 

Hefner and Playboy’s social and political orientation in the early 
1960s reflected a Kennedyesque sensibility. Promoting energy, youth, 
and boldness, it played up the theme of a new generation and affirmed 
liberal causes. Sympathy for human freedom, Playboy suggested, was 
another mark of the sophisticated modern male. Ironically, however, 
the publishers growing public engagement was accompanied by a 
private withdrawal. Rarely leaving the controlled environment of the 
Playboy Mansion, he labored for days on end with little sense of time 
and had ever fewer encounters with the outside world. Hefners fan- 
tasy, while still vivid to the outside world, seemed to turn inward and 
become a private dream. 


Ill 

The social scene at the Playboy Mansion became everything Hefner 
had dreamed of when he moved into the residence. He had refur- 
bished the wonderful old house with an eye toward entertainment, 
and in the early 1960s it became packed with lavish parties, movie 
screenings, and famous guests. Those in attendance often felt swept 
up in “a timeless, spaceless sensation,” as Norman Mailer described 
it. “One was in an ocean liner which traveled at the bottom of the 
sea, on a spaceship wandering down the galaxy along a night whose 
duration was a year.” 29 

The festivities were enhanced by sexual encounters between 
young men and women who cavorted in the huge ballroom, indoor 
swimming pool, or underground bar. “We were all enjoying the sow- 
ing of wild oats — men and women alike . . . with absolutely no strings 
attached,” described Keith Hefner. “Old rules didn’t apply,” said 
Murray Fisher. “It was like going to some infants paradise, where 
you could eat all the candy you wanted and you wouldn’t get fat.” The 
mansion’s atmosphere simply bowled over many who experienced it. 



198 


MR. PLAYBOY 


As Bob Hope quipped about Hefners parties, “It’s this guys world. 
He just lets us live in it.” 30 

But this joyful, uninhibited picture became blurred in a peculiar 
way as Hefner increasingly retreated from the hedonistic scene he 
created. He holed up for long stretches in his private quarters at the 
Playboy Mansion, attending movie screenings and making cameo 
appearances at many parties. But just as often he stayed out of sight. 
By the time he started writing the Playboy Philosophy, he had aban- 
doned his corporate office for his bedroom, where he worked in his 
pajamas, ate junk food and swilled Pepsis by the dozen, and drew thick 
curtains across the windows to keep out sunlight. He slept and ate as 
he felt the need, regardless of the time of day or night. He became 
a recluse. “I rarely went out. But why should I?” Hefner said of his 
unconventional lifestyle. “Everything I wanted was already there.” 31 

But there was more to it. Hefners physical and emotional with- 
drawal, in many ways, had a chemical basis. By the late 1950s, he had 
slipped into a habit that would corrode his editorial skills over the 
next decade. In 1957, he complained that an exhausting work sched- 
ule was putting him to sleep at his desk and Victor Lownes suggested 
Dexedrine, an appetite suppressant that kept you awake and alert. 
Hefner tried one and was delighted when it boosted his energy and 
concentration. He began gobbling dexies and, according to Lownes, 
was soon staying up “for three or four days, without sleeping or 
eating, hardly blinking, working feverishly around the clock with the 
single-minded intensity of a maniac.” 32 

By 1958, Hefner had developed a drug dependency. “Can we get a 
new supply of Dexedrine to fortify the troops during the next all-night 
mission?” he wrote in a June memo. A few months later he requested: 
“Can we get a new supply of Dexedrine to the fourth floor — our pres- 
ent quantity is running low and, as you know, the total operation of 
Playboy is now dependent on those little orange pills.” 33 

Not surprisingly, Dexedrine made Hefners professional judgment 
increasingly erratic. Spectorsky complained to Hefner that his dexie- 
induced schedule made it nearly impossible for the staff to consult with 
him while fostering an unfortunate preference for purple prose. “I think 
that by the time you do buckle down to reading a piece, it’s got to be 
in neon to hold your attention, it’s got to be like headlines,” Spectorsky 
wrote. “It makes it damn hard for those of us who live more conven- 
tionally to know what you’ll respond to, and how you’ll respond.” 34 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


199 


By the early 1960s, Hefners Dexedrine habit was causing severe 
problems. While Ray Russell resigned in 1960 from a desire to become 
a freelance writer, he also had lost patience with his boss’s “distortion 
of perception and judgment. . . . Hef had always been a great guy to 
work for, but now I could never be sure when I was working for him 
or for the pill.” Dick Rosenzweig, who became Hefners executive 
assistant in 1963, was shocked as his boss came to look like “he had 
popped out of Dachau. He was skin and bones because, among other 
things, the dexies take away your appetite.” 35 

The dexies influenced everything. They produced gargan- 
tuan memos where Hefner would stay up all night, talking into his 
Dictaphone, with the results subsequently transcribed and distributed 
to long-suffering staffers. “Hefner made a point of never saying any- 
thing in 10 words if he could use 100, never saying anything once if he 
could repeat it three or four times,” Lownes noted. “The joke we all 
told at the time was that you had to take a dexy just to read those god- 
damn memos.” Editorial meetings were erratically called, frequently 
canceled, and invariably late starting. Executives called Rosenzweig 
to see where Hefner was positioned in the drug cycle before they 
scheduled an appointment, knowing that he could be explosively 
ill-tempered when he was coming out of a binge. Dexies also shaped 
the manic composition of the Playboy Philosophy. Associates described 
him as a “demonic” recluse in his bedroom bunker, speeding like crazy 
as he covered the material from every imaginable angle, then crashing 
into a sleeping stupor before beginning the cycle all over again. 36 

The ultimate dexie ordeal came with the writing and publication of 
“The Chicago Mansion,” a story on his residence composed in the fall 
of 1965. Hefner cherished the project and its composition became 
a drug-driven obsession. He began firing off Tolstoyan memos on 
early drafts, and more revisions brought more memos. After several 
weeks, Spectorsky threw in the towel. “Here is the fruit of weekend 
and Monday work by the entire staff with the help of 57 pages of 
single-spaced memos from you,” he wrote Hefner. “Hef, I have lost 
all judgment on this. ... I do not recall a time in my life when I felt so 
defeated by a job that I have lived with, awake and in my dreams, for 
days. . . . You can reach me at home; I am ill and going to bed.” 37 
With only a week before deadline, Hefner took over the wri ti ng and 
brought Murray Fisher in to assist. An unforgettable ordeal unfolded 
as Fisher sat next to the publisher for several days and nights, stopping 



200 


MR. PLAYBOY 


only to grab a sandwich or catch a couple hours of sleep. “I matched 
him Pepsi for Pepsi, Dexie for Dexie, and the more I took the more 
reasonable he seemed to me,” Fisher recalled. For endless hours 
Flefner painstakingly examined each sentence, crossing out nearly 
every word and agonizing over its replacement. “By the fourth day, we 
were both hallucinating vividly — unfortunately, not always the same 
thing,” Fisher described. They finally finished the piece as the sun 
came up on Thanksgiving Day, and the assistant editor confessed he 
“had a lot to be thankful for: somehow, I had survived.” 38 

But Hefner s reclusive habits did not tarnish his image. Paradoxically, 
his withdrawal only seemed to increase the mystique surrounding 
him. Controversy also contributed, as with a headline-grabbing trial 
that brought him before a Chicago jury on charges of obscenity in 
November 1963. After a complaint by Chicago Citizens for Decent 
Literature, a Catholic group first offended by his stalwart defense of 
Lenny Bruce after his recent arrest for obscenity, Chicago police had 
arrested Hefner for a Playboy pictorial on Jayne Mansfield. Widely 
covered by newspapers, radio, and television and packed with spec- 
tators, the proceedings in the Chicago Municipal Court became a 
circus. A Playboy press agent handed out copies of “The Playboy 
Philosophy.” The consultation room for Hefner and his attorney 
displayed a full-color picture of the pope. Prosecution experts testi- 
fied that the Mansfield pictorial inflamed the sexual appetite, while 
Hefners attorney countered with a discussion of Benjamin Franklins 
“Letters to Young Men on Choosing a Mistress” and termed him “a 
playboy of 1776.” Hefner, accompanied by a beautiful Playmate, testi- 
fied that only 5 percent of the material in his magazine was devoted to 
nude or seminude women. After a hung jury refused to condemn the 
publisher, the prosecution was dropped and Hefner emerged from 
the trial with an enhanced image as a defender of free speech. 39 

Hefners love life in the early 1960s fed the publics fascination. 
The Playboy publisher pushed the erotic pedal to the floor, observ- 
ing, “I remember quite clearly the first time I realized that I had 
slept with a different girl every night the previous week. Wild, crazy, 
wonderful. ... At long last, I had managed to find my Jazz Age, the 
Boaring Twenties of my dreams.” The mansion became “a bache- 
lors paradise” for the fulfillment of his fantasies and, in his words, 
“I couldn’t have been more pleased with myself if I had discovered 
fire or invented the wheel.” 40 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


201 


Hefner had dozens of casual sexual liaisons with Playmates. 
During the shooting of the “Playmate Holiday House Party” for the 
December 1961 issue, he was involved with eleven of the twelve 
participating Playmates, according to Joni Mattis. Hefner gloried 
in his Don Juan image, noting that “reputation actually made you 
more attractive to women.” A notorious fling came with Donna 
Michele, a sultry eighteen-year-old ballet dancer and actress who 
became Playmate of the Year in 1963. She accompanied Hefner to 
the Mansfield obscenity trial — she sulked when the Kennedy assassi- 
nation interrupted Chicago nightlife and preempted television — and 
then to Jamaica for a weeks vacation in early 1964, but soon departed 
to pursue a movie career. 41 

Throughout this period, however, Hefner steadily dated two young 
women. Cynthia Maddox served as his regular girlfriend from 1961 
to 1963 and Mary Warren from 1963 to 1968. He became very close to 
both, and their relationships with the Playboy editor revealed much 
about his state of mind. Exhilarated by the atmosphere of sexual lib- 
eration and determined to dominate his romances, Hefner molded 
these young women into the larger pattern of his life and work. 

Cynthia Maddox had begun working at Playboy in 1959 as a recep- 
tionist, and slowly worked her way up to become an editor in the car- 
toon department. Strikingly beautiful, she was, in Hefners words, “the 
blond, blue-eyed, pink-skinned beauty with the knockout body that 
you mooned over at your desk in high school.” Maddox originally had 
caught the eye of Victor Lownes, who pursued her relentlessly. When 
he put his hand on her knee under a table at lunch, she would stare 
coldly, grab the hand, and slap it back on the tabletop. Hefner found 
Lownes s public humiliation hilarious. 42 

Hefner set his own sights on Maddox. He found her stern resis- 
tance to Lownes admirable, and relished a challenge in the fact 
that she was “the company virgin. Everyone knew she was a virgin 
because she made such a point of it,” he said. The two began dating 
and developed a starry-eyed romance. When Maddox finally decided 
to consummate the relationship, he arranged a trip to the West Coast 
and rented a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Upon returning to 
Chicago, she moved into an apartment in the Playboy Mansion. 43 

The pair had a smooth working relationship. As assistant cartoon 
editor, Maddox worked side by side with Hefner for a long session 
each week and they “absolutely agreed about cartoons,” in her words. 



202 


MR. PLAYBOY 


They spent weekends together as well as an evening or two a week, and 
she accompanied Hefner to New York for the Playboy Jazz Awards, 
and to Los Angeles for a visit with the artist Alberto Vargas and his 
wife. Maddox’s beauty made her a natural for the magazine and she 
ended up as Playboy cover girl five times from 1962 to 1966. 44 

The couple shared many interests, watching old Nelson 
Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movies from the 1930s and consulting 
on the purchase of modern paintings for the mansion. But Maddox 
had a strong streak of jealousy that made Hefner uncomfortable. At 
the opening of the New York Playboy Club in 1962, a pretty brunette 
followed the editor back to his room uninvited. He was politely try- 
ing to get rid of her when Maddox came in and, convinced he was 
fooling around, exploded in anger. “When Cynthia got mad she threw 
things,” Hefner said. “She started with a book and was reaching for 
a lamp when the phone rang. . . . She locked herself in the bathroom 
for a time, before accepting my innocence and making up.” 45 

Maddox adored Hefners sweet and funny side and found man- 
sion life tremendously exciting with its music and parties, celebrities 
and brilliant guests. It was “just like being a movie star,” she told 
a journalist. At the same time, she increasingly felt trapped in her 
famous boyfriends life. All their activities revolved around him and 
she complained that he dominated any discussions or disagreements 
that they had. “Sometimes, God, I don’t feel like I have any identity 
of my own,” she confessed in a newspaper interview. “I would like 
someone who really notices me, really can respect me, really can 
remember things about me — some man who thinks about me when 
I’m away from him.” 46 

Maddox also grew increasingly disturbed over Hefner’s dalliances 
with other women. “I’ve been dating Hef for about a year. He dates other 
girls and I don’t like it. He knows that I don’t like it,” she complained 
in The Most. (She also created an indelible image of the ditzy blonde, 
telling the interviewer, “Discussions go on back and forth and we try to 
work things out very intelligubly . . . uh, intellijub ...” as she stumbled 
over the word “intelligently.” Laughing embarrassedly, she dropped 
her prop, retrieved it as the shoulder strap on her dress slipped down, 
and tried to recover with a breathy Marilyn Monroe-style “Hi!”) She 
resented his double standard where he expected to date others while 
she remained faithful. In public she acted unconcerned, but “inside, 
it was killing me.” Sometimes when the anger boiled up, she stomped 
on material he had laid out for the magazine. 47 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


203 


Finally, a frustrated Maddox engaged in several affairs of her own 
and the romance with Hefner began to cool by the summer of 1963. 
She also began to see a psychiatrist in hopes of recovering her self- 
regard. The two drifted apart, although they would reconnect ami- 
ably in later years. As Maddox said, “When I walked out, I was ready 
to leave and I didn’t miss it.” 48 

In late summer 1963, Hefner met Mary Warren, a tall, stately 
twenty-year-old with green eyes and a great figure. They were imme- 
diately attracted to each other, and after the publishers fling with 
Donna Michele ended, they settled into a long relationship. Warren 
worked at the magazine as a receptionist, and then became a door 
Bunny at the Chicago Playboy Club. Like Maddox, she was a virgin 
when she met Hefner. Such innocence always attracted the publisher, 
who confessed that he became caught up in “the feeling that the girl 
could love you. Only you. And that it was all-encompassing.” 49 

Warren possessed an uncommonly sweet temperament — a quiet, 
friendly, unspoiled quality — that struck many who met her. “There 
was something special about Mary,” said Nat Lehrman. “She had no 
hard edges.” This may have stemmed from her religious background. 
Her mother was appalled when she joined Playboy , predicting, “The 
next thing, you’ll be sleeping in Hefner’s round bed!” 50 

When Warren moved into the mansion, she utterly devoted her- 
self to Hefner. Her dedication to him became legendary. “If home, 
work, TV, and the time of day are all geared to his needs, it is under- 
standable that he would have a woman that molds her life to his,” said 
Shel Silverstein. “Mary did that.” She secluded herself in the mansion 
with him and appreciated the few occasions when they ventured 
out together: a long walk through the neighborhood in the rain, a jaunt 
to the Old Town Art Festival, an evening at a nightclub, and a skiing 
trip to Aspen. Hefner appreciated her dedication, describing her as 
“one of the sweetest, most devoted women I’ve ever known.” 51 

But Warren’s devotion came at a price. Beset by insecurities, she 
floundered in establishing a sense of self-worth amid the constant 
attention focused on Hefner. A 1965 story in Life magazine described 
her sitting in his bedroom performing perfunctory tasks as she waited 
for him to break from work. “I wouldn’t think of interrupting Hefner,” 
she said. “I would never have anything that important to say.” When 
asked if she was happy in her life with the publisher, she replied duti- 
fully, “I regard it as an honor, a pleasure, and a wonderful experience.” 
Perhaps as a reflection of her uncertain identity, Warren changed her 



204 


MR. PLAYBOY 


hair color many times — from blonde to chestnut to brunette — during 
her years as Hefners girlfriend. 52 

Despite her best efforts, Warren also had trouble accepting her 
boyfriends womanizing. Sally Bealls, Hefners administrative assis- 
tant, took Warren under her wing and often heard the young woman 
pour her heart out about her desire to settle down with Hefner, who 
regularly saw other women. Bealls tried to joke that the publisher 
was merely “doing research,” but Warren found little consolation in 
the humor. Hefner, with his usual honesty, did not try to hide the 
situation. “Right now, my special girl is Mary. It has lasted three and 
a half years,” he told Look magazine in 1965. “But in the meantime, 
I have had many less important relationships.” In fact, he reveled in 
his many sexual liaisons. Growing restless around the holidays in late 
1964, he turned elsewhere for female attention. “There was a deli- 
cious decadence in spending Christmas day in bed with three girls,” 
he reported. 53 

Warren’s desire for marriage and family found a temporary sur- 
rogate with Humphrey, a lovable St. Bernard puppy she and Hefner 
adopted and named after his favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart. She 
hosted a mansion party for the newborn pup in July 1964. A 1965 
magazine story painted a rather sad picture of her keeping the puppy 
in a playpen in the master bedroom, addressing him as “Baby” and 
Hefner as “Daddy” and herself as “Mommy.” While Hefner worked 
on his bed, Warren tried not to disturb him while cuddling and play- 
ing with Humphrey. 54 

Slowly, Warren assumed a quiet air of sadness. While photographs 
appeared to show a happy, beautiful young woman on her famous 
boyfriends arm, a closer look revealed hollow smiles and melan- 
choly eyes. A series of cards and notes to Hefner offered glimpses 
of her insecurity and resignation. One said, “In this modern world of 
blase sophistication, its certainly a relief to know someone like you, 
who derives pleasure from the simpler things in life. Like me! Love, 
Mary.” A 1964 birthday card contained a poem in her handwriting: 
“Although I nag you so very much — Please don’t evict me from your 
rabbit hutch! Love, Mary.” A late 1965 card contained this mournful 
note: “My heart is blue, ’cause I don’t know if you love me like I love 
you. Love, Mary.” 55 

In the fall of 1965, Warren moved out of the mansion. Living in an 
apartment less than a block away, she continued to date him for more 



THE HAPPINESS EXPLOSION 


205 


than two years as they went to mansion parties, opened Playboy Clubs, 
and occasionally went skiing. In 1967 she quit Playboy to become 
executive secretary for a medical researcher at Michael Reese 
Hospital as the relationship wound down. In July 1968, Warren sent 
a final, bittersweet anniversary card to Hefner. The front said, “As 
long as we’ve got each other . . .” and then opened to read, “Who 
needs happiness. Love forever, Mary.” 56 

Hefner’s romantic life in the early 1960s displayed what would 
become a lifelong pattern. He maintained a primary relationship 
with a young woman over several years, all the while seeing other 
comely females on a regular basis. In love with love but determined to 
avoid commitment, he openly, honestly adhered to a double standard: 
he could date others but his girlfriends could not. Like the social con- 
cerns appearing in his magazine, Hefner’s love life defied the norms of 
respectable middle-class America as he created a lifestyle tailored to his 
own desires. Yet, as Tom Wolfe pointed out, many average Americans 
also were seeking fulfillment by challenging traditional restrictions on 
the pursuit of happiness. Once again, it seemed, the publisher had 
positioned himself at the cutting edge of social change. 

But the unruly spirit that energized Hefner, Playboy , and American 
society in the early 1960s would soon appear tame. The brisk winds 
of dissent in that period within a short time would build into a hurri- 
cane of rebellion that threatened to tear apart the social and political 
fabric of the United States. Like many Americans, Hefner would find 
himself caught up in an upheaval dwarfing anything he could have 
imagined. With typical shrewdness, he maneuvered himself and his 
magazine right into the heart of the storm. 



11 


Make Love, Not War 


I n the summer of 1966, Hugh Hefner returned to the United States 
I flush with excitement. Journeying to England for the opening of 
I the London Playboy Club and Casino, he had been galvanized 
by the creative energy pulsating throughout the city. In fact, “Swinging 
London” had captured much of the world s imagination as the center 
of a popular culture renaissance in the mid-1960s featuring the pop 
music of the Beatles, the daring “mod” fashions of Mary Quant, the 
films of Tony Richardson, the acting of Terence Stamp, the photog- 
raphy of David Bailey, the experimental theater of John Osborne, 
and the hairstylings of Vidal Sassoon. Permeating the atmosphere 
was a spirit of liberated sexuality. “London today is in many ways 
the cheerful, violent, lusty town of William Shakespeare,” wrote Time 
magazine. Hefner believed that the city’s spirit of cultural ferment 
soon would appear in the United States. 1 

Little did he know. Even as his plane touched down in Chicago, 
dissatisfaction with traditional values was building explosively. Dissent 
over American military involvement in Vietnam was mushrooming, 
the civil rights movement was becoming militant, and restless college 
students were questioning the bureaucratic structures dominating 


206 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


207 


modern life. Even more broadly, growing numbers within an affluent 
middle class were turning rebellious in the name of personal freedom 
and fulfillment. Challenges to old-fashioned American values of self- 
control, piety, and respect for authority seemed to materialize on 
every front. 

Mainstream media registered the social discontent. In a 1967 
cover story titled “The Permissive Society,” Newsweek explored 
Americas growing agitation. Probing a Zeitgeist in flux, the article 
noted that “old taboos are dead or dying” as American movies, 
novels, plays, music lyrics, and advertising were adopting wholesale 
a vocabulary of frank language and sexual images. An even larger 
collapse of restraint regarding obscenity, premarital sex, and nudity 
left many Americans bewildered and confused. “The shattering of 
taboos on language, fashion, and manners generally is part of a larger 
disintegration of moral consensus in America,” Newsweek concluded. 
Hefner figured prominently in the story as a symbol of the new sexual 
openness, asking, “Why are laughter, anger or pity legitimate reac- 
tions [among adults], but not sexual excitement?” 2 

The journalist and historian Max Lerner ruminated similarly. In a 
1967 newspaper column he argued that America had evolved from 
a “production society” into a “swinging pleasure society” marked by a 
plethora of consumer items and pulsating desires for personal free- 
dom, fulfilling experiences, and “expressive lives.” Lerner also cited 
Hefner, arguing that the publisher was trying “to provide a frame for 
a hedonic life — a frame of reasoned principle” in Playboy . 3 

Over the next few years, Hefner would figure even more promi- 
nently in a period of turbulence that stretched American society to 
the breaking point. As racial rioting, political pandemonium, massive 
civil disobedience, and bitter clashes over cultural values became 
common fare, he and his magazine stood at the center of the action. 
Indeed, the half decade from 1966 to 1971 marked the peak of the 
Playboy ascendancy. As the sexual revolution now exploded full force 
as part of a larger cultural upheaval, Hefner remained its most promi- 
nent advocate and symbol. At the same time, he moved to the left 
politically and became a spokesman for nuclear disarmament, racial 
reconciliation, personal liberation, and an enlarged welfare state. 

But an internal tension characterized Playboy’s new agenda of 
social and political activism. As some observers noted, Hefners maga- 
zine maintained an uncomfortable conflict between its promotion of 



208 


MR. PLAYBOY 


hedonism and material affluence — sports cars, fine wines, fashionable 
clothing, chic apartments, fancy stereos — and its espousal of apolitical 
ethos that attacked corporate profit-making, denounced “the estab- 
lishment,” and demanded uplift of the downtrodden. To certain of his 
allies on the left, Hefner increasingly seemed to be upholding with 
one hand the very system he was attacking with the other. He seemed 
to reflect, in the memorable phrase of Tom Wolfe, a species of 1960s 
“radical chic” — the glib embrace of political radicalism by social elites 
firmly ensconced within the system. 4 

But such tension would not bear fruit for some time. Meanwhile, 
the Playboy editor became what he had always dreamed of being — 
not only a full-fledged popular culture celebrity but a serious player 
in the shaping of modern American values. Heeded as never before, 
he emerged as the prince of 1960s hedonism. 


I 

Hefners growing prominence appeared unmistakably on the cover 
of Time magazine on March 3, 1967. Under a diagonal yellow slash 
announcing “The Pursuit of Hedonism,” a wooden sculpture by 
fashionable avant-garde artist Marisol rendered the publisher as an 
“All-American boy” in red, white, and blue on two blocks of wood. The 
feature story inside proved equally provocative, if less flattering. 

While Time presented Hefner as “prophet of pop hedonism,” 
it scarcely concealed its tone of contempt. The feature described 
him as an “impresario of spectator sex,” a fanatic who spread “the 
gospel of pleasure with a dogged devotion that would do credit to 
any missionary,” and a juvenile who appealed to “the undergraduate 
who wants to act like a sophisticate.” Nonetheless, Time grudgingly 
concluded that he reflected something significant in modern life. 
Playboy's popularity indicated that “the puritan ethic was dying, that 
pleasure and leisure were becoming positive and universally adored 
values in American society.” 5 

Over the next few months Hefner seemed to be everywhere. He 
gave scores of newspaper and magazine interviews and appeared as 
a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Joey Bishop 
Show on ABC, and the syndicated Bill Dana Show. NBC News gave 
him a starring role in its May 8, 1967, prime-time special The Pursuit 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


209 


of Pleasure, which examined the growing hunger for affluence, leisure, 
and self-gratification among ordinary Americans. The host, Sander 
Vanocur, described him as “the Chairman Mao of the sexual revolu- 
tion, issuing maxims for moral guerrilla warfare,” and characterized 
Playboy as “the McGuffey’s reader of the sexually literate.” Hefner 
sat alongside the noted conservative commentator William F. Buckley 
and the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, in the library of the Playboy 
Mansion. Puffing on his trademark pipe, he insisted that the old reli- 
gious basis of morality had faded and a new foundation was required. 
Quick on his rhetorical feet, he held his own with these intellectual 
heavyweights. 6 

Meanwhile, Hefners enterprise flourished. By 1968 the magazine s 
circulation stood at five and a half million, its clubs and merchandis- 
ing operations were flourishing, and plans were afoot for a new syndi- 
cated television show. Statistics revealed that from 1963 to 1969, the 
company’s yearly sales rose from $26 million to $96 million as Playboy 
remained at the center of what Newsday called a “budding real estate, 
publishing, entertainment conglomerate.” Arbiters of American 
business sat up and took notice as Business Week, Generation: The 
Magazine of Young Businessmen, and Barron’s all ran flattering sto- 
ries on the dramatic growth of the Playboy empire. 7 

Hefner displayed his growing wealth and influence in two highly 
publicized moves. First, in the spring of 1967, after a lengthy reno- 
vation, Playboy occupied its chic new headquarters in the recently 
christened Playboy Building. Second, in the summer of 1967 Hefner 
ordered a personal Douglas DC9 jetliner for $4.5 million. Dubbed the 
Big Bunny, it was painted black because “it epitomized elegance, 
the kind of elegance once associated with a limousine,” in Hefners 
words — and had the magazine s bunny logo emblazoned in white 
on the tail. He spent an additional $1 million on remodeling that 
brought large, cushioned seats that transformed into sleeping berths, 
a videotape system and retractable screen, television monitors, a 
discotheque and bar, conference areas separated by fiberglass parti- 
tions, and a galley capable of preparing an eight-course meal for thirty 
diners. Its interior decoration utilized hand-rubbed rosewood, black 
leather, and oiled bronze. Hefners private quarters in the rear of the 
plane housed a six-by-eight-foot elliptical bed complete with special 
seat belts and a Tasmanian opossum spread, a stereo and videotape 
system, a motorized swivel chair, and a shower with two nozzles. 



210 


MR. PLAYBOY 


A crew of eight “jet bunnies” dressed in black miniskirted uniforms 
with knee-high boots served as stewardesses. This extravagant 
“Playboy pad with wings,” as Look magazine described it, quickly 
became the supreme symbol of Hefners pleasure-filled lifestyle. 8 

As Hefner and his enterprise flourished, Playboy expanded its 
reach. The magazine continued to serve up healthy portions of erotic 
pictorials, ranging from nude photographs of Jane Fonda on the set 
of a French film to “The Bunnies of Missouri.” On the literary front, 
a growing crowd of notable writers flocked to the magazine. From 
1966 to 1970, Jean-Paul Sartre, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, 
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Updike, Graham Greene, and Joyce Carol 
Oates contributed stories and essays. 9 

The Playboy “pleasure-primer” of stylish consumption expanded 
in accordance with the rapid growth of a consumer economy in the 
1960s. Features explored topics such as the merits of various small 
aircraft available to the busy entrepreneur, the building of a modem 
business wardrobe, and the rewards of continental travel. The maga- 
zine continued to survey the entertainment world of music, movies, 
and comedy, frequently turning to high-profile celebrities such as 
Federico Fellini, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Michelangelo Antonioni, 
and Stanley Kubrick for “Playboy Interviews.” 10 

Most significantly, however, Playboy threw itself wholeheartedly 
into politics. The first tentative forays in the early 1960s now became 
a full-scale charge into a public arena grown volatile by mid-decade. 
Racial tensions exploded with African American rioting in Americas 
cities during the “long hot summers,” which in turn generated a 
strong white backlash. American involvement in the Vietnam conflict 
triggered the first waves of antiwar protests. A more generalized dis- 
content with prevailing social and economic power structures swept 
through college campuses. Hefners magazine responded by becom- 
ing a standard-bearer for liberal causes. 

In 1966, James Farmer, the black leader of the Congress of Racial 
Equality, praised the transformation of the civil rights crusade into 
“a full-fledged revolutionary movement.” Playboy’s panel discussion 
on “The Crisis in Law Enforcement” pondered the rise in crime, 
growing conservative animosity toward “bleeding heart” judges, and 
liberal fears about the expansion of government police powers. Max 
Lemer offered a long, carefully reasoned essay advocating admission 
of communist China into the United Nations. 11 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


211 


The following year, Playboy examined the growing wave of protests 
in the United States and concluded that “dissent is an obligation that 
everyone opposed to the status quo owes himself and society.” It 
analyzed domestic disturbances and suggested that an American 
proclivity for violence stemmed from poverty, excessive repression, 
and a boundless individualism. A critique of police policies and prac- 
tices informed readers that “despite new Supreme Court safeguards 
of our civil rights and liberties, police brutality prevails and the police 
mentality assumes guilt until proven innocent.” 12 

Playboy Interviews became particularly political. A 1966 session 
with the historian and political adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explored 
his views on Americas Vietnam involvement, domestic policies, and 
the civil rights movement. An interview with Fidel Castro focused on 
America’s rift with Cuba and larger ideological issues at work in the 
Cold War. Meanwhile, the magazines cultural commentary began to 
highlight the growing assault on American middle-class values. An 
extensive discussion with the drug guru Timothy Leary focused on LSD, 
psychedelics, and legal restrictions on their use. A long analysis of the 
“underground press” surveyed the “always uninhibited, often outra- 
geous, sometimes unintelligible anti-establishment newspapers” that 
had sprung up as venues for dissent. 13 

In December 1967, Playboy showcased its expanded profile. 
The issue — some 320 pages long with a psychedelic cover of 
wavy, distorted lettering set against a bright background of purple, 
bright green, and orange — seemed to take in everything going on 
in contemporary America. Readers encountered erotic pleasures 
ranging from the monthly Playmate, Lynn Winchell, to “Art Nouveau 
Erotica” and “The Wicked Dreams of Elke Sommer”; stories by Isaac 
Bashevis Singer, P. G. Wodehouse, and Irwin Shaw; celebrity fea- 
tures on television host Johnny Carson and actor Walter Matthau; 
sophisticated consumer pieces on traveling to the Winter Olympics 
in Grenoble, France, and shopping for the latest high-tech gifts and 
gadgets for Christmas. They also found a range of political pieces. 
One related how a dean at Harvard left to become director of fresh- 
man studies at Miles College, a small, unaccredited Negro college 
near Birmingham, Alabama. John Kenneth Galbraith presented a 
proposal for extracting America from Vietnam, while Justice William 
O. Douglas examined “Big Brother” governmental intrusions into 
Americans’ private lives. 14 



212 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Playboy’s final 1967 issue captured the sensibility of that 
era — politically engaged, yet optimistic, inclusive, and high on the 
“peace and love” possibilities of a new age. Much like the Summer 
of Love in 1967 and the March on the Pentagon, it reflected a wide- 
spread attitude of hope that reasonable, open-minded people of 
goodwill could work to resolve pressing problems. But this optimistic 
tone would not last, either in America or in Playboy. Within a few 
weeks, the country seemed to explode. 


II 

Shortly after midnight on August 27, 1968, Hefner, Max Lerner, 
Jules Feiffer, John Dante, and Bobbie Arnstein ventured out of the 
Playboy Mansion and walked toward Lincoln Park. They wanted to 
observe firsthand the battleground occupied by police and protes- 
tors as the Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago. 
Violent clashes had erupted as thousands of antiwar protesters had 
converged on the city and the police had responded with beatings and 
mass arrests. Film accounts of the bloody confrontations had domi- 
nated national network news and the pungent smell of tear gas had 
wafted through large areas of the central urban area. Hefner, increas- 
ingly political, had been absorbed in the growing controversy. 15 

In fact, some dissidents in the Democratic Party had made the 
Playboy Mansion their unofficial headquarters for the convention. 
A few days before it convened, Hefner had cosponsored (along with 
John Kenneth Galbraith and George Plimpton) a black-tie, $100 
per ticket fund-raiser at his home for the insurgent peace candi- 
date, Senator Eugene McCarthy. Subsequently, he hosted what the 
New York Times described as a “week-long party for the beautiful 
people” of the Democratic Party. Liberal activists such as Cleveland 
mayor Carl Stokes, Boston mayor Kevin White, civil rights leader 
Jesse Jackson, California industrialist Ed Pauley Jr., and actor Warren 
Beatty frequented the mansion, shaping strategy and enjoying the 
hospitality. 

But now the seriousness of the situation confronted Hefner 
directly. As his little group glimpsed a large crowd of demonstrators 
approaching with an escort of angry police, they sensed danger 
and headed back to the mansion. Just then, a police car pulled up and 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


213 


several officers jumped out, pointing shotguns and yelling at them 
to go home. When Hefner explained that was precisely what they 
were trying to do, an officer whacked him across the buttocks with a 
billy club, causing a large bruise to form. When news of the incident 
appeared, one wag suggested that the police had seen a pajama-clad 
figure and mistook him for a Viet Cong, but Hefner was not amused. 
He called a news conference at the mansion to denounce unpro- 
voked police brutality. “The squad car almost ran us down. We saw 
an uptight establishment. Goading people, looking for something 
to attack,” he described. Hefner vowed to become more politically 
involved in light of his experience. “Last night I saw so-called law and 
order, without any consideration for justice or democracy,” he said. 
“That doesn’t separate us very far from totalitarian society.” 16 

Hefners experience offered a snapshot of the divisions threatening 
to tear the United States apart at the end of the decade. The uproar 
in Chicago capped several months of domestic disruption in America 
probably unequaled since the Civil War a century earlier. Throughout 
America, youths were flocking to the standard of the counterculture 
with its ethos of “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” The Tet Offensive by 
communist forces in Vietnam revealed a military stalemate and trig- 
gered massive antiwar demonstrations and campus revolts. The dom- 
inant Democratic Party splintered under the pressure as challenges 
from two peace candidates, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert 
F. Kennedy, caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce his 
withdrawal from the race. Meanwhile, a powerful conservative back- 
lash developed as Republican Richard M. Nixon gained support for 
his “law and order” campaign and Alabama governor George Wallace, 
a third-party candidate, promised an even stronger crackdown on civil 
rights and antiwar agitators. By early summer 1968, anger, despair, 
and rioting swept through the country in the wake of the stunning 
assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, which 
occurred within a few weeks of each other. The country stood polar- 
ized between radical advocates of change and staunch defenders of 
authority and stability, while many in the middle remained confused, 
resentful, and frightened. 17 

In this atmosphere of public turmoil, Hefner clearly positioned 
himself as a voice of left-liberal dissent. His critique of American 
authority, of course, began with the sexual revolution and its 
potential for creating a new, liberated world of personal happiness. 



214 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Birth control had separated sex from reproduction and allowed it to 
be “considered as purely pleasurable,” he argued, and people were 
finally overcoming their tendency “to make something hidden and 
presumably evil out of the human body.” 18 

But sexual revolution was only part of a larger movement aimed 
at dismantling barriers to personal fulfillment and promoting human 
liberation, he continued. As he told the Saturday Evening Post , 
“Exactly the same things that are causing the sexual revolution in 
this country are also causing the civil rights revolution and the dissent 
on Vietnam and the student protests.” Sexual freedom was one aspect 
of a broader crusade linking “racial freedom, social freedom, political 
freedom, liberality.” The common enemy was an insidious, repres- 
sive, outdated Puritanism and at stake was American self-government. 
The question of forbidding erotic material for private enjoyment, he 
claimed in 1969, went to a larger question of “whether you want a 
democracy or some form of authoritarian society that is predicated on 
the premise that man is weak and can’t rule himself politically, can’t 
rule himself socially, can’t rule himself sexually.” 19 

As Hefner veered left politically in the late 1960s, he condemned 
America’s anticommunist foreign policy, denounced its involvement 
in the Vietnam War, and advocated United Nations control of its 
nuclear arsenal. He endorsed the use of recreational drugs such as 
marijuana and LSD, maintaining that in a democratic society “you 
must be free to make your own decisions in terms of control over your 
own mind and body.” In 1969, in a long series of interviews with the 
writer Malcolm Boyd, he stressed his political commitment to indi- 
vidual rights, a “more socialized capitalism” with government regula- 
tions on a market economy, and the necessity of world government. 
He also expressed sympathy for youthful dissent, asserting that “there 
are far more men of goodwill under twenty-five than over.” 20 

Hefner summarized his political credo in a few brief maxims: 
“International law instead of warfare to control the possibility of 
nuclear holocaust. An end to racism. An end to poverty around the 
world. [To] the population explosion. [To] the pollution of our nat- 
ural resources. Then, all that remains is disease. If we spent our 
money on these things instead of war, by the year 2000 we could be 
moving into a real golden age.” As he reminisced later about this 
period, “I yearned for a world without boundaries in which men of 
varying political, ethnic, and religious persuasions lived together in 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


215 


a free and just society. That was the sort of idealistic bleeding-heart 
liberal I was.” 21 

The late 1960s version of Playboy mirrored both the heightened 
political sensibility of its founder and the confrontational mood grow- 
ing in the United States. From 1968 to 1970 the magazine launched 
a barrage of social criticism aimed at undermining bourgeois virtues 
and Cold War values. This campaign materialized on several fronts. 

The magazine endorsed a cultural politics of full-blown sexual 
liberation, offering sympathetic portrayals of “The Sexual Freedom 
League” and partner-swapping “swingers.” It surveyed college cam- 
puses with an eye to discovering whether schools stood “in the van- 
guard or on the sidelines regarding the abolition of restrictions on life, 
liberty, and the pursuit of heterosexual happiness?” (The University 
of Wisconsin ranked first while Bob Jones University ranked last.) It 
presented in-depth interviews with medical researchers Drs. William 
Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose book Human Sexual Response 
unexpectedly had become a runaway best-seller, and Dr. Mary 
Calderone, the pioneering advocate of sex education. 22 

Playboy also closely examined the new sexual freedom in enter- 
tainment. A long look at the avant-garde “theater of the nude” ana- 
lyzed recent productions such as Hair, Dionysus in 69, and Futz! and 
concluded that “eclipsing even Hollywood, the New York stage is tak- 
ing it off — taking it all off.” The magazine presented a text-and-photo 
feature on Oh! Calcutta! a controversial off-Broadway nudist romp 
that “unabashedly satirizes — and celebrates — contemporary sexual 
mores, hang-ups, and diversions.” 23 

Editorially, the magazine denounced censorship of erotic materi- 
als and advocated birth control and reform of divorce laws to allow for 
easier, less contentious breakups. It also appealed for a more sympa- 
thetic consideration of homosexuality, presenting letters from liberal 
clergymen in the Playboy Forum arguing that “a genuine Christian 
spirit demanded toleration and redemption, not moral condemna- 
tion.” Playboy took the progressive position that a “sickness” formu- 
lation should be dropped in favor of the more scientific “deviance,” 
and that homosexuals, since they followed “a compulsion based on 
phobic reaction to heterosexual stimuli,” should be encouraged to 
seek therapeutic help. 24 

More broadly, Playboy advocated a hip cultural politics in the 
late 1960s that favored the abandonment of traditional restraints in 



216 


MR. PLAYBOY 


favor of personal freedom. Its fashion advice urged young men to 
embrace a new sartorial freedom by abandoning coats and ties for 
Nehru jackets, chains and pendants, and “leisure suits.” As one piece 
put it, fashionable males should be “more involved in doing their own 
thing than in being caught up in any specific fashion trend.” 25 

The magazine sympathetically portrayed the swelling drug cul- 
ture as another venue for self-exploration. Articles explored the links 
between drugs and sexual ecstasy, advocated the decriminalization of 
marijuana, and urged the loosening of legal restrictions on drugs of all 
kinds. As a Playboy Panel on “The Drug Revolution” noted, drugs had 
moved to the forefront in “the war between freedom and repression, 
youth and age, powerlessness and power.” 26 

Playboy became a bastion of left liberalism in its politics. It 
defended the growing wave of youthful dissent and acclaimed the 
recent student revolt. It denounced intrusive government power, 
called for the end of Cold War military actions such as Vietnam, 
and advocated a staunch environmentalism and expansion of social 
welfare programs. It sought to make Christianity a force for ending 
social ills as spokesmen such as Harvey Cox called for the resurrec- 
tion of Jesus as “a joyous revolutionary” who would unlock “the radi- 
cal potential in Christianity.” 27 

Increasingly, Playboy enticed a distinguished list of liberal office- 
holders and public figures to appear in its pages. They included 
Senators J. William Fulbright, Jacob Javits, and Frank Church, who 
wrote on such issues as the need for gun control, lowering the vot- 
ing age, and reconfiguring American foreign policy. Supreme Court 
justices William O. Douglas and Arthur J. Goldberg also contributed 
articles, the former on the increase in water pollution and the latter 
on the dangers posed to the Bill of Rights by advocates of law and 
order. Martin Luther King Jr., who visited the mansion in October 
1967 to discuss public issues, published the last piece he ever wrote 
in the magazine. 28 

The Playboy Interviews became a friendly forum for many lib- 
eral activists. The list included war critic and draft counselor William 
Sloane Coffin, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, civil rights spokes- 
man Jesse Jackson, and radical lawyer William Kunstler. The maga- 
zine even glamorized Marxist intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse, 
described in a profile as a “septuagenarian superstar” who toured the 
college lecture circuit attracting hordes of adoring young acolytes. 29 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


217 


Even Playboy’s monthly centerfolds periodically displayed a new 
political sensibility. “Turned On” Playmate Debbie Hooper cam- 
paigned for Senator Eugene McCarthy, dedicated herself to “help- 
ing her generation unwind our uptight society,” and “grooves on 
sunshine, sculpture, and progressive politics.” Playmate Gloria Root 
was a “full-time radical” who determinedly protested the Vietnam 
War while remaining “always on the move, always ready to challenge 
authority, and always eager to have a good time.” Another Playmate, 
“Tuned-In Dropout” Elaine Morton, rejected “establishment modes 
of living” and dropped out of college to live in a converted milk truck 
along the west coast of Baja California. 30 

At decades end, Playboy reached the height of its political activ- 
ism. In 1969, it presented a tandem tribute to the recently assas- 
sinated Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. that glorified 
their martyrdom to liberal causes. It also offered two long blue- 
prints for social and political change — they were drawn up by a who’s 
who of liberal public figures, including Theodore Sorensen, Mayor 
John Lindsay, William Sloane Coffin, Senator Charles Percy, Cesar 
Chavez, Julian Bond, and Senator George McGovern — that aimed to 
solve problems of war, injustice, poverty, and pollution. In the fall of 
a 1970, “Playboys Political Preference Chart” appeared for the fall 
elections, grading candidates in key races around the country based 
on the extent of their liberal views. 31 

Thus the late 1960s politics of Hefner and his magazine lobbed 
grenades into the camp of the political establishment and displayed 
a libertarian streak dedicated to protecting the individual against 
displays of governmental power, whether in the bedroom, the draft 
board, or on city streets. But for all its radical rhetoric, Playboy s 
politics were not revolutionary. While the magazine and its editor 
sought to enhance personal liberation and social justice, this agenda 
did not challenge Americas basic social and economic system. In 
fact, as a number of critics pointed out, a certain tension emerged 
between Hefners advocacy of sweeping social and political reform, 
on the one hand, and his espousal of hedonism, material affluence, 
and corporate success, on the other. 32 

The Detroit Free Press, for instance, contended that the Playboy 
scene appealed mainly to “Richard Nixon’s silent majority.” An 
academic article argued that Playboy, far from challenging the stand- 
ing order, represented the very spirit of modern American capitalism. 



218 


MR. PLAYBOY 


In the same way that Benjamin Franklin’s Protestant ethic of t hrift, 
and hard work had provided the productive drive for an infant capi- 
talism in the late 1700s, Hefners “ethics of consumption” set the 
foundation for a mature capitalism. Franklins “productive industry” 
had given way to Hefner’s “strenuous leisure” in the evolution of the 
American socioeconomic system. 33 

Some youthful radicals were less polite. Upon hearing that his 
teacher was writing an article on Hefner, a Yale student launched a 
profanity-laden denunciation of the publisher as the enemy. “Jesus, 
he’s so materialistic. Playboy glorifies everything that is lousiest about 
America,” said the young activist. “Those hairless, frozen blondes — 
made up to look like the girl next door, and photographed in a phony, 
out of focus way. And those goddamn conformist ads. Everybody is 
sort of supernigger, with his unbelievable chick, his goddamn expen- 
sive car, his shitty correct suit and shaving lotion and pad. Christ.” 
Another young radical told a radio interviewer, “Playboy today is 
practically the voice of the establishment. Young guys today are inter- 
ested in more than cars and hi-fi sets and carefully posed pictures of 
balloon-bosomed bunnies.” 34 

Such tensions produced a confrontation in the pages of the Playboy 
Forum. In 1969, a correspondent accused the magazine of hypocrisy, 
professing to be for liberal change and social progress while doing 
“everything you can to perpetuate the American upper-middle-class 
way of life.” If genuine revolution ever came, he said, “the image 
of the good life you hold up to Americans will be the first thing to 
go.” Playboy replied angrily. It accused the reader of not only seek- 
ing a future inhabited by gray-uniformed monks, but failing to grasp 
the magazine’s position. “While the luxuries we portray may today 
be enjoyed only by a fraction of the world’s peoples, we do not think 
true social progress consists of sweeping those luxuries away but, 
rather, in extending them to all (a possibility technology is making 
both feasible and desirable),” it indignantly noted. “We see the good 
life and social progress as vitally connected.” 35 

This critique of Playboy ’ s faux radicalism found some confirmation 
in the magazine itself. Throughout the late 1960s, it uneasily juxta- 
posed its anti-establishment rhetoric with a celebration of consumer 
abundance. Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, and Tom Hayden, railing 
against the oppressions of the system, appeared alongside J. Paul 
Getty, the billionaire businessman who tutored readers on success 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


219 


in the corporate world. Such tension produced awkward moments. 
The November 1970 issue, for instance, positioned “West of Eden,” 
a sympathetic account of hippie communes (they were seeking “new 
ways to live humanely with nature and one another”) immediately 
next to “Presents Perfect,” a slick survey of the newest amenities 
available to prosperous consumers. Accented by young women with 
scant clothes and sultry stares, the glossily photographed bounty of 
goods included a “three-screen TV, by Sony, for $695”; a “Volante 
3000 transistorized polystyrene wall clock, from Design Group, $40”; 
and an “eleven-channel mobile phone featuring compact transmitter- 
receiver and easily mounted handset, by Symetrics, $1645.” Questions 
of how communes and Cuisinarts, Cesar Chavez and J. Paul Getty 
could be reconciled remained unanswered. 36 

Hefner grew sensitive to such criticism. When pressed on his 
simultaneous belief in affluence and radical politics, he replied, 
“Eve showed that it’s possible to be a liberal and anti-establishment 
and still be very successful.” Moreover, he insisted, youthful dissent- 
ers erred in adopting “an anti-materialist mood.” “Many of them 
resent Playboy because it espouses the virtues of materialism. The 
real problem is how to get the benefits of materialism to the most 
people possible.” He insisted that “materialism isn’t — and shouldn’t 
be — a dirty word,” and provided no barrier to developing a “strong 
social conscience.” Hefner tried to steer a careful course between 
the old and the new: “Playboy has the establishment status symbols 
yet we are iconoclastic and anti-establishment in our questioning of 
the old mores.” 37 

In another sense, however, the tension between Hefner’s defense 
of material abundance and his political attack on the establishment 
was less than his critics imagined. For much 1960s radicalism, in 
fact, was less radical than it appeared. As Christopher Lasch observed, 
this movement tended to view politics as street theater, a public per- 
formance that valued style over substance and adopted “dramatic 
gestures,” media manipulation, and “self-promotion.” Significantly, 
most young radicals of this era were themselves the children of post- 
war affluence whose commitment to self-gratification equaled that 
of the establishment they attacked. The radical slogan “the personal 
is the political” revealed a focus on consciousness-raising that, much 
like the modern consumer capitalism it opposed, sought a goal of 
self-fulfillment. Also like their opponents, dissenters rejected such 



220 


MR. PLAYBOY 


outmoded traditions as self-denial, duty, sacrifice to the common 
good, and higher loyalties, all of which faded before the pressing 
demands of personal transformation. Thus it was no accident that 
Jerry Rubin, radical hero as one of the “Chicago Seven,” followed an 
easy path from radical politics to a series of therapies in the 1970s 
(Est, Rolfing, Gestalt, Esalen, meditation) to, finally, Madison Avenue 
as a marketing analyst and venture capitalist. In other words, the pro- 
found personalism of 1960s radicalism, almost as much as the capital- 
ist structure it denounced, reflected the modem historical shift from 
a society of scarcity and self-control to one of abundance, leisure, and 
self-fulfillment. 38 

This same overarching desire for self-fulfillment clearly fueled 
much of the late 1960s politics of Hefner and his magazine. In 1969, 
he argued that Americans no longer gained identity through work but 
through avocation and recreation. Thus the most pressing modern 
issue was to “get beyond the guilt that goes with pleasure” and forge 
happiness based on play and satisfying desires. “Our basic thing is 
about how to enjoy your leisure,” Hefner explained of the Playboy 
ethos. Harvey Cox praised countercultural dissenters for rejecting 
outdated notions of “work as the sole means of achieving human ful- 
fillment” in favor of “devising a new leisure life style.” At the end of 
the 1960s, in an article titled “Leisure in the Seventies,” Playboy 
highlighted its commitment to self-fulfillment. Events of the last 
decade, it contended, had revealed a profound struggle to adapt to 
a new world where technology had created “more leisure time for 
almost all of us — a prospect that frightens as many as it pleases.” This 
demanded new strategies for “using our new time more creatively, 
adopting personal pursuits that will become as much a part of our 
identities as our jobs.” Ultimately, Playboy reassured, “the potential 
pitfalls of the new leisure are outweighed by the promise of self- 
exploration and discovery.” 39 

So in many ways Hefner stood as a fitting symbol of 1960s rebel- 
lion, although in ways neither he nor his critics ever fully understood. 
Whether in politics or culture, the antagonists of this contentious 
era — political radicals and aspiring executives, seekers of emotional 
experience and seekers of material wealth, both the establishment 
and its critics — endorsed the deeper claims of the self. In a mod- 
em American culture where the demands of self-realization infused 
everything, notions of commitments above and beyond personal need 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


221 


failed to register. As Playboy’s editor recognized perhaps better than 
anyone, quenching inner desires comprised the logic of modern 
American life. This powerful, expanding impulse of self-fulfillment 
animated not only Hefners politics in this age of rebellion, but his 
private life as well. 


Ill 

In some sense, the personal always had been the political for Hefner. 
He had lived out his private rebellion against middle-class mores 
since founding Playboy in 1953, personifying the pleasures of sex 
and materialism that he believed had been stifled by a heritage of 
Puritanism. American culture seemed to catch up with him by the 
mid-1960s as middle-aged suburbanites reveled in consumerism and 
relaxed sexual standards while youthful rebels threw restraint to the 
winds and rejected most forms of authority. The Hefner Doctrine of 
hedonism with a social conscience went mainstream, and the pub- 
lishers private life reflected the search for self-fulfillment under way 
in the permissive atmosphere of late 1960s America. 

But the problem of Hefners legendary reclusiveness lingered. 
Abundant publicity had informed the public about his isolation in 
the mansion for months, if not years, at a time. Wired on dexies and 
addicted to work as much as revelry, given to terrible eating hab- 
its and scrupulously avoiding sunshine and exercise, Hefner had 
become dangerously underweight and his teeth had begun bother- 
ing him from massive, daily sugar doses in soft drinks. Nothing better 
illustrated this peculiar exile than his comical initial visit to the new 
Playboy Building. “The first time was in the middle of the night when 
it was raining. I was out walking,” he ruefully told an interviewer. 
“We’d laid out millions and I hadn’t yet wandered over, even though 
it’s only a few blocks from the Mansion. It turned out the guard didn’t 
know who I was — but he finally let me in.” 40 

By early 1967, at age forty-two, pale and weighing a gaunt 135 
pounds, Hefner was ready for a change. His 1966 trip to London, 
and his observation of a new liberationist ethic sweeping through 
America shortly thereafter, had inspired him to consider a change of 
habit. “When a fellow moves into his forties, it’s time he takes stock 
of his life, undergoes a reevaluation, and perhaps revamps things a 



222 


MR. PLAYBOY 


bit,” he told the Chicago Tribune. As he admitted to Time, “I finally 
woke up to the fact that I had the world by the tail, and if I wanted 
to enjoy it, I’d better start taking care of myself.” 41 

He decided to act. In one of those bold transformations by which 
he periodically altered his life, Hefner reinvented himself. He began 
to sleep regularly and eat a healthier diet. Giving up amphetamines, 
he embarked upon a moderate exercise routine — mostly on a slant 
board and stationary bicycle — and gradually added thirty pounds 
to his frame. “It’s part of a new image called living longer,” Hefner 
told one magazine. Affected by the new sense of freedom sweep- 
ing through men’s fashions, he also purchased a new wardrobe. 
Abandoning the white shirts, restrained ties, and trim, dark-colored 
business suits from earlier days, he hired a tailor and spent $10,000 on 
a new Edwardian wardrobe of wide-lapeled, double-breasted suits, 
colorful shirts, flashy ties, and leather overcoats, as well as Nehru 
jackets and pendants. 42 

He also decided to delegate more editorial responsibility at the 
magazine to subordinates. As Playboy had expanded, the tasks 
involved with overseeing its publication had grown enormously 
and Hefner’s burden became backbreaking. He began turning over 
more responsibilities to Art Director Art Paul, Photo Director Vince 
Tajiri, and Editorial Director A. C. Spectorsky and his young asso- 
ciate editors. Hefner explained his decision in terms of confronting 
Frankenstein: “I found that I had built this marvelous machine, but far 
from being master of that machine, the machine was ruling me.” 43 

Thus Hefner, both physically and psychologically, left the cocoon 
of the mansion and ventured out into the vibrant, experimental atmo- 
sphere of the late 1960s. His own, personal sexual revolution became 
central to this new engagement with the world. He had continued 
to have sex with a variety of Playmates and Bunnies throughout the 
mid-1960s, but now his encounters proliferated. He enjoyed flings 
with “Personal Playmates” such as Cynthia Myers, Jill Tewksbury, 
Gale Olson, and Carol Imhoff. He even had a brief affair with one of 
his daughter’s teenage friends in late 1968. “When my more reclusive 
Mansion years ended, they ended with a bang,” he recalled later. 
“The number of my new sexual partners increased ten-fold that year 
[1968] — from 4 to 40 — as I enthusiastically participated in the plea- 
sures to be had in this sensual society.” 44 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


223 


In July 1968, while visiting Los Angeles, Hefner participated in 
what he called a “Hollywood orgy that Cecil B. Demille would be 
proud of.” About seventy Hollywood swingers came to his apart- 
ment on Sunset Boulevard in an atmosphere resonating with sexual 
adventurism. The result startled even Hefner: 

The scene that night is not easy to describe. It began as a 
very conventional cocktail party, but before long couples had 
started fondling one another, pulling off their clothes, mak- 
ing out on the couches, on the floor, in the living room, bed- 
room, and bath. Couples turned into threesomes, foursomes, 
moresomes — combinations that boggle the imagination. . . . 

I’m right there in the middle of it all. 

The next evening, a few friends came over to discuss the events 
of the previous night. Suddenly, a strange couple came in, ordered 
drinks, and began making out on the couch on the other side of the 
room. “They’d been invited to the orgy, but got the date wrong,” 
Hefner discovered. 45 

Meanwhile, at the mansion, a vibrant new social scene flowered. 
Large, boisterous parties had continued throughout the 1960s, of 
course, but now they were invigorated by a new atmosphere of lib- 
eration as well as Hefners actual participation. A long list of celeb- 
rities from every walk of life frequented the festivities. On any 
given night, one might encounter Bishop Pike and David Susskind, 
astronaut Scott Carpenter and Mort Sahl, jockey Billy Hartog and 
Johnny Carson, Woody Allen and Alistair Cooke, Danny Kaye and Vic 
Damone, Michael Caine and Mel Torme, Wilt Chamberlain and 
Steve McQueen, or dozens of others. 46 

A high point in the new mansion social environment came on 
February 23, 1968, when Hefner hosted “The Happening,” a grand 
gathering devoted to the new psychedelic age. Dozens of guests 
arrived dressed in the latest groovy garb — miniskirts, Nehru jackets, 
fringed leather jackets, flowered shirts, love beads — and playfully 
waved signs saying “Love,” “Charlie Brown for President,” “Flower 
Power,” and “War Is Bad for Children and Other Living Things.” As 
rock music from a live band blared through the house, dancers and 
spectators alike were blanketed with a swirling, throbbing light show. 



224 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Playmates adorned with body paint roamed through the crowd, as 
did a robed guru. Behind a large buffet table groaning with food sat 
a sign reading “Psychedelicatessen.” 47 

A coterie of male companions invigorated Hefners active new 
life. The group included old friends Shel Silverstein, the cartoon- 
ist, author, and songwriter; John Dante, former club owner and now 
Playboy employee; plus Bill Cosby, the comedian and actor starring 
in the television hit I Spy. The quartet spent much time hanging 
out at the mansion, talking and joking, pursuing women, and play- 
ing games into the early morning hours. They also ventured up to 
Playboys new Wisconsin resort at Lake Geneva, which opened in 
May 1968. This facility had been created as part of the company’s syn- 
ergistic plan, aimed at the leisure needs of “affluent pleasure seekers” 
with its fine restaurants and bars, stage shows, shops, game rooms, 
twenty-five-acre lake, tennis courts, ski runs, and golf course. Hef 
and his three buddies loved to fly up to the resort, catch a show, and 
throw a party for the Bunnies and performers. 48 

Hefner’s reemergence into the world also inspired a new television 
project, Playboy After Dark. Shot at CBS studios in Los Angeles and 
syndicated nationally, the show started taping in the summer of 1968. 
Hefner had been inspired to reenter television as part of his personal 
makeover. “The whole thing represented a change in lifestyle for me. 
For the last several years I have been, well, a sort of recluse,” he told 
the Los Angeles Times. “Now I’ll be spending every other week out 
here taping the show.” 49 

Like his first television project a decade earlier, Playboy After Dark 
took the form of an apartment party hosted by Hefner. Presenting a 
variety of singers, comedians, dancers, and celebrities, it adopted 
a casual, personal tone and attempted, in Hefner’s words, to “use the 
camera as a third person at our party.” It offered an entertainment 
blend of old and new: comedians Jack E. Leonard and the Smothers 
Brothers, musicians Buddy Bich and the Grateful Dead, filmmakers 
Otto Preminger and Boman Polanski. Hefner was eager to display 
the current interest in sexual liberation. “The Playboy Philosophy 
advocating more permissive behavior in sex will be implicit in 
the show,” he told Variety. “But we’ll do it in good taste and with 
sophistication.” 50 

Then Hefner fell in love. At the third taping of Playboy After Dark 
on August 7, 1968, he met an eighteen-year-old UCLA coed named 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


225 


Barbara Klein, who was an extra. He was immediately struck by her 
schoolgirl looks — button nose, large dark eyes and long dark hair, daz- 
zling smile, purple miniskirt. According to Lee Wolfberg, who later 
introduced them, when Hefner first spied her, it was “like a movie 
scene, across a crowded room, he sees her and lights up like a light 
bulb.” When she danced frenetically to the music of the guest band, 
Iron Butterfly, “I almost fell out of my chair,” Hefner recalled later. 
They shot another episode the next day, and he finally had a chance 
to talk with the young beauty. He invited her to join him and a few 
friends at a post-show jaunt through some Los Angeles discos, which 
prompted a legendary quip. Klein said, “I’ve never dated anyone over 
twenty-five.” “Thats okay,” Hefner replied. “Neither have I .” 51 
That night, after slow-dancing with Klein to Herb Alpert’s hit song 
“This Guys in Love with You,” Hefner began to fall for her. Klein, on 
her part, found her suitor to be bright, funny, and charming, but was 
worried that “he was old enough to be my father.” They had dinner 
the next several evenings, went dancing, and concluded their dates in 
dark corners of the clubs cuddling and smooching like teenage sweet- 
hearts. “All of a sudden, he didn’t seem so old to me anymore,” said 
the coed. Hefner admitted, “I hadn’t felt like this since high school. 
I flew back to Chicago in a happy haze .” 52 

Over the next several months, a smitten Hefner pursued Klein 
relentlessly during his trips to Los Angeles. At first, a Playboy limou- 
sine would pick her up at her dormitory, but as other students began 
to buzz about the situation she decided to drive her own car to meet 
the publisher. Klein became a regular on Playboy After Dark , increas- 
ingly appearing on camera at Hefner’s side, and between segments 
they would sit and hold hands. “It was very exciting for both of us. 
I remember when he sent flowers to the dormitory. He sent so many 
flowers that I was able to give one to every girl in the dormitory,” she 
said. “It was all a new experience to be with somebody who knew how 
to handle women. He really does make a woman feel special .” 53 
In September, Klein accepted Hefner’s invitation to come to 
Chicago, staying at the mansion and accompanying him to the Lake 
Geneva resort. They spent much time kissing and petting but Klein 
refused to give up her virginity. For her that meant total commit- 
ment, and she was still unsure about the gap in age between them. 
Hefner grew intensely frustrated by the situation, but he was so smit- 
ten that patience triumphed over desire. He took the shocking step 



226 


MR. PLAYBOY 


of meeting her parents in Sacramento, then flew with her to Aspen 
for a Christmas ski vacation, followed by a New Years celebration 
in Las Vegas. The publishers friends were amazed at his ardent yet 
restrained courtship. “He really romanced this lady,” noted Cosby. 54 

This went on for months. Finally, on Valentine’s Day in 1969, the 
two consummated their relationship on Hefner’s round, rotating bed 
at the Chicago mansion. “The next thing I knew, we had done it, 
and I was in shock,” Klein recalled. “I don’t even remember how 
it was, I was so taken aback by the whole thing. I remember thinking 
at the time, well, at least we’ve got that out of the way.” With her 
inhibitions finally overcome, Klein threw herself into the relation- 
ship and became the key figure in Hefner’s life. 55 

She had an immediate impact on the publisher, inspiring a flurry 
of travel that shocked his friends and associates. In February they 
went to Acapulco with three other couples for a seaside vacation 
where Hefner went parachute-sailing high over the bay even though 
he couldn’t swim a stroke and didn’t like the water. They procured 
some marijuana from the locals, got delightfully high, and spent 
an evening giggling and gorging themselves on Kentucky Fried 
Chicken. The following month the couple traveled to Hawaii, fol- 
lowed by an early summer trip to Puerto Rico. When Klein got a 
starring role in a movie, How Did a Nice Girl Like You Get into This 
Business, Hefner accompanied her to Rome, Monte Carlo, Paris, and 
London for several weeks of filming. At the publisher’s suggestion, 
she changed her name to Rarbi Renton because it would look bet- 
ter on a theater marquee. At a press conference, Hefner even went 
public with his bliss: “I think I can say this is the first time I’ve ever 
been in love.” 56 

At home, Hefner displayed a new zest for activity in the com- 
pany of his girlfriend, especially in California. They spent the day at 
Disneyland, went bowling with Sonny and Cher, and even took up 
tennis. “We used to play at public courts because we didn’t belong to 
a club,” she explained. “We were about the same in terms of ability, 
which was beginners, but sometimes we’d get to the court and have 
to wait. . . . Can’t you just see Hef waiting in line? It was fun; we held 
hands.” 57 

Renton found the luxurious lifestyle to be an important part of the 
Hefner appeal. Having grown up as a doctor’s daughter and accus- 
tomed to the finer things in life, she appreciated that the house wine 



MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR 


227 


at the Playboy Mansion was Chateau Lafite Rothschild. “I was meant 
to be a Jewish- American princess,” she admitted. “That was a lifestyle 
a girl could get used to.” She also slid into the Playboy orbit and was 
featured in a nine-page pictorial in 1970 titled “Barbi Doll.” Originally 
reluctant to pose nude, she overcame her reservations because the 
magazine “upholds really good taste.” Pursuing her career as a model, 
toying with the idea of becoming a singer, and enjoying the atten- 
tions of her famous boyfriend, Benton lived in the moment. “I really 
honestly thought I’d probably only stay with Hef as long as we were 
having fun,” she said. 58 

Thus Hugh Hefner reached the height of happiness and influence 
in the late 1960s. More widely read than ever before, Playboy was 
shaping public opinion while his company was raking in tremendous 
profits. His celebrity status had reached the top tier as America caught 
up with, and celebrated, his advanced notions of pleasure-seeking 
through sexual liberation and consumer enjoyment. His unabashed 
liberal political crusading seemed to embody the spirit of this tumul- 
tuous age. Finally, and no less importantly, he seemed to have found 
the girl of his dreams. 

But then Hefner, like the hero in a Greek tragedy warned of 
hubris, was blindsided and knocked from his pedestal at the point 
of his greatest triumph. Certain of his liberal allies grew troubled over 
an issue becoming increasingly explosive in the radicalizing world of 
late 1960s America. Many women had never been comfortable with 
Playboy and its depiction of females, and now they sharpened their 
weapons and went after its editor with a vengeance. Things would 
never be quite the same. 



12 


What Do Women Want? 


A t the end of the decade, 1960s social activism blew up in 
Playboy’s face. In February 1969, during a talk by Bruce 
Draper, the magazine s college promotion director, at Grinnell 
College in Iowa, a cadre of protestors burst into the gathering. To 
the astonishment of those present, about ten of the interlopers — 
mostly females but including a few men — completely disrobed as 
they shouted and waved signs reading “Liberated Women Are More 
Fun” and “Playmeat of the Month.” Then they fanned out through 
the audience, handing out fliers reading “We protest Playboy’s images 
of lapdog female playthings and their junior-executive-on-the-way-up 
possessors.” The protesters identified themselves as members of the 
Grinnell Womens Liberation Group and the Guerrilla Theater. 1 

This proved to be the opening salvo in a rapidly escalating war. 
At Antioch College in Ohio, protestors disrupted Playboy photogra- 
phers who were there to take pictures of new mens fashions. About 
three hundred people chanted slogans, taunted the visitors, and took 
their clothes off to protest the magazine’s “mindless flaunting of the 
female body.” Even the Playboy Mansion became a target later that 
year. At a benefit party for the ACLU hosted by Hefner, Mrs. Wayne 


228 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


229 


Parsons, a member of the organization s board of directors in Illinois, 
expressed her disgust at Playboy by taping political flyers over valu- 
able works of art hanging on the walls. As security men escorted her 
out, she shouted that Hefner’s magazine “portrayed women as mere 
sexual objects.” 2 

In such agitated fashion, a highly emotional and divisive dispute 
ensnared Hugh Hefner at the moment of his greatest success. Acolytes 
of the womens liberation movement, one of the freedom-seeking 
crusades emerging from the political ferment of the 1960s, put the 
publisher and his magazine in the ideological crosshairs and pulled 
the trigger. Hefner, they accused, was an exploiter of women. The 
publisher, who saw himself as a great emancipator, felt a profound 
sense of betrayal as a growing segment of the left began portraying 
him as an agent of oppression. The controversy escalated into full- 
scale conflict that occasionally waned but never disappeared. It would 
plague him for the rest of his career. 

Up to this point, Hefner had been at the center of several great 
social transformations that remade post-World War II America: the 
sexual, consumer, and media revolutions. Now another great wave 
of social change — the movement for womens rights — threatened to 
engulf the Playboy ship and capsize it. But the issues proved to be as 
complicated as they were emotional. Hefner s and Playboy’s attitude 
toward, and role in, the struggle for women’s rights proved less 
salutary than the publisher would ever admit, but also less incrimi- 
nating than his feminist critics claimed. The situation overwhelmed 
simplistic attacks and defenses and ultimately, as with just about 
everything else in his career, it focused on sex. Moreover, it involved 
an evolution of ideas and attitudes about women’s role in society, as 
Hefner and his magazine changed from the 1950s to the 1970s. The 
same held true for the vast majority of Americans, and his story, like 
theirs, revealed much about a difficult sea change in modern social 
and cultural values. 


I 

In the 1950s, women were assigned a particularly important place in 
the structure of American society. After the enormous dislocations 
in personal life caused by the Great Depression and World War II, 



230 


MR. PLAYBOY 


the postwar era repositioned women at the center of a revitalized 
domestic ideal. The traditional family reemerged with renewed vigor 
as women assumed positions as stewards of large, “baby boomer” 
families and domestic managers of increasingly affluent households. 
Awash in a consumer bonanza, urban and suburban families became 
hubs of what one historian has termed “domestic containment” — 
stable entities that cultivated sound values and nourished security 
as part of a larger ideological struggle. In the postwar definition of 
femininity, it became womens civic duty to sustain the family as a 
bulwark of the American Way of Life in the struggle with a hostile 
communist foe. 3 

But social and economic developments soon placed enormous new 
pressures on female domesticity. First, women entered the workforce 
in unprecedented numbers to help support Americas growing con- 
sumer tastes, and by 1960 roughly 30 percent of American wives 
were laboring for wages. They faced inequalities in pay, however, 
and, if married, a growing burden from piling housework on top of an 
outside job. Second, young women attended college in growing num- 
bers after World War II and the notion of careers outside the home 
took root. Third, as the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the 
Human Female made clear in 1953, restrictions on female sexuality 
appeared to be loosening in postwar society, a trend that accelerated 
rapidly with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960. Finally, 
from within the confines of the idealized American home, a slow- 
simmering discontent began to emerge among many women who felt 
trapped by an endless round of childcare duties, PTA meetings, shop- 
ping, and housecleaning. Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique 
(1963), famously described this sense of frustration as “the problem 
that has no name.” In other words, many women ensconced in the 
American home were growing restless by the early 1960s. 4 

Playboy, of course, emerged precisely during this period. Over 
its first decade, from the early 1950s through the early 1960s, the 
magazine reflected both the dominant expectations and the growing 
discontent regarding women’s position in postwar America. Hefner 
upheld certain long-standing attitudes about males and females, but 
he disrupted others. Partly by design, but largely by accident, he 
helped set the stage for a revolution in attitudes about women. 

Playboy presented itself as a strident opponent of the 1950s 
domestic ideal. It called for a loosening of the model of middle-class 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


231 


conformity binding young women (as well as young men) and 
applauded the notion that they should postpone marriage, work for 
a time, and explore the world before settling into motherhood and 
family. The magazine also contended that females should be freed 
from “Puritanism” and allowed to experience erotic pleasure just like 
their male counterparts. In other words, women should be liberated 
for sex. 

Playboy’s Playmate of the Month typified this message. She 
represented not only the girl next door who demonstrated that “nice 
girls enjoy sex, too,” as Hefner liked to put it, but the adventurous 
female who had left the neighborhood to experience the world. The 
Playmate embodied, literally, the notion of the liberated young woman 
who stood outside marriage and motherhood as a student, stewardess, 
model, secretary, or librarian. So did the popular cartoon series Babs 
and Shirley, which humorously portrayed two single, working young 
women who shared an apartment as well as a spirit of carefree sexual 
freedom. A typical cartoon pictured the two bachelorettes sprawled 
on the sofa chatting, as Shirley observed, “Ordinarily I never chase 
after a man, Babs, but this one was getting away .” 5 

In many public statements, Hefner maintained that a healthy 
society encouraged a robust female sexuality. Playboy’s ideal of “full- 
figured, fresh faced . . . natural female beauty” protected against the 
identity confusions of an “asexual society.” Moreover, the magazine 
promoted the notion of sex with no strings attached. In embracing 
this fantasy, many young men sharpened a tendency to see females 
mainly as sexual prey. Throughout Playboy’s first decade of existence, 
women usually appeared as attractive creatures who were fair game 
for the wiles of seduction. In part, of course, this scenario updated the 
erotic game of enticement and pursuit between men and women that 
was as old as humankind. But it also encouraged men to see women 
primarily as sexually alluring creatures to be bedded and enjoyed 
serially . 6 

This attitude toward women appeared consistently in the early 
years of Playboy. In a playful series of pieces on “how to succeed 
with women without really trying,” Shepherd Mead urged young 
men to play the field and avoid hasty marriage. “You can have only 
one wife at a time, but the bachelor can be surrounded by girls of all 
kinds,” he joked. “Surround yourself.” He suggested ploys for break- 
ing marital engagements: “I’m afraid of us, Ethel.” “Of us, Davie?” 



232 


MR. PLAYBOY 


“Of our passions. Burn us both to ashes.” Another version surfaced 
in “The Playboy Coloring Book,” a satire that presented line 
sketches and directions as if to a child poised with a box of crayons. 
One said, “Here is the playboy with his two favorite toys. The one 
on the left is called a sports car. Color it fast. The one on the right is 
called a playmate. Color her pretty.” On another page: “This is the 
playboys office. . . . The playboys secretary cannot type, or spell, or 
take shorthand. Color her hair yellow, and her eyes green, and her 
lips red, but leave her mind blank.” At another point: “These are extra 
playmates. ... It does not matter which is which. The girls’ hair colors 
are interchangeable. So are the girls.” 7 

Playboy , like nearly everyone else in 1950s America, also upheld 
the primacy of men in society. It defended male dominance in the 
workplace, arguing that single women should take jobs but avoid 
“competing” with men for plum positions. If the young womans place 
was not necessarily in the home, neither was it in the executive suite. 
As Shepherd Mead half-jested, “The woman executive must not be 
allowed to spring up — and, once having sprung up, must be sup- 
pressed as quickly as possible.” Married women also were expected 
to know their place. An advertisement in Playboy for “The Pink 
Pedestal” offered a certificate with an illustration of a woman in 
ancient garb standing atop a classical column holding a broom. “Put 
the little woman in her place,” read the text, and give her this award 
“that shows your appreciation of her daily slaving. Personalized with 
her name. A constant source of inspiration on kitchen or laundry- 
room wall.” “I guess we do express an antifeminist point of view, and 
we might be somewhat in error in not giving the exceptional woman 
full credit,” Victor Lownes told the Saturday Evening Post in 1962. 
“But we firmly believe that women are not equal to men.” 8 

Hefner agreed that gender roles went “back to the very beginning 
of time. The man goes out and kills a saber-toothed tiger while the 
woman stays at home and washes out the pots. Fair, unfair, good, bad, 
or indifferent, the roles were clearly defined.” He asserted, “No sane 
woman would really want equality. . . . There are an endless number 
of special advantages, considerations, courtesies, laws that protect 
womankind. They would no more want to do without these than the 
man in the moon.” As he explained to a friend, “If playboy some- 
times seems to be saying that women belong in the bedroom and not 
in the office, it is because so many publications are trying to divest 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


233 


women of all natural womanly charms, to make them competitive 
with, and almost indistinguishable from, men.” 9 

In fact, Playboy and Hefner frequently raised the alarm against 
the danger of growing female power. Throughout the 1950s and early 
1960s, the magazine often portrayed women as grasping, competi- 
tive, and dominating as they appropriated power in the home and 
secured growing leverage in the consumer marketplace. Men, the 
magazine warned, needed to assert their position before they became 
completely emasculated. 

In its very first issue, Playboy warned against gold-digging women 
who manipulated the divorce system to keep them in the high life. 
“All-American womanhood has descended on alimony as a natural 
heritage,” it said. “Even the simplest wench can make a handsome 
living today.” In subsequent years, it exposed additional schemes con- 
cocted by domineering women, such as the manipulation of language: 
“Femalese: ‘Oh dear, I feel so foolish, coming out without my purse 
this way.’ Translation: ‘Out with the wallet, sweetheart, and hold 
still — this won’t hurt a bit.’” Another lamented the disappearance 
of the old-fashioned “all-girl girl” in the face of newer, more aggres- 
sive types. This older ideal “never permitted a few belated civil liber- 
ties to transform her into a Susan B. Anthony Memorial Shrew.” 10 

Playboy s early crusade against overweening women reached its 
apex in a series of biting articles from Philip Wylie. This controver- 
sial journalist and novelist had first gained attention with Generation 
of Vipers (1942), a vitriolic best-seller that attacked “Momism.” 
Modern mothers, he accused, were typically cloying, manipulative 
shrews who weakened American society by browbeating their hus- 
bands and sissifying their sons. Now Wylie penned several pieces 
in Hefner’s magazine that denounced more generally the sway of 
modern females. In “The Abdicating Male” (1956), Wylie claimed 
that women had captured “more than 80% of America’s buying,” a 
trend mercilessly manipulated by Madison Avenue and shamefully 
accepted by stifled men. In “The Womanization of America” (1958), 
he decried a modern “taffeta tide” that was flooding over social 
clubs, teaching, entertainment, and the arts. When men had granted 
female rights and emancipation, he argued, women took advantage 
because “to them equality meant the tyrant’s throne.” In “The Career 
Woman” (1963), Wylie took special aim at females — “perfumed 
pirates,” “girl-guillotiners,” “she-tycoons” — who were invading 



234 


MR. PLAYBOY 


business management and the professions. This type represented 
an “obscene compulsion: she must compete with and, if necessary, 
cripple manhood and masculinity on earth.” 11 

In 1962, Playboy gathered eight spokesmen for a Playboy Panel 
on Wylie’s “The Womanization of America.” “In many ways, womens 
meteoric ascendancy has been entirely laudable; we are not male 
chauvinists,” Playboy professed at the outset. But it also claimed 
that “women are being masculinized even faster than the country is 
being womanized. Or is it, perhaps, that men are being effeminized?” 
Most of the panel endorsed this view. Two commentators described 
womens growing influence as a healthy move toward equality, but 
the others agreed with Norman Mailer, who contended that “women 
are becoming more selfish, more greedy, less romantic, less warm, 
more lusty, and more filled with hate.” As Alexander King, playwright 
and Life editor, observed, “I haven’t the slightest doubt that this abso- 
lute, unquestioned equality [of women] is a great mistake and in vio- 
lation of all natural laws. It is a mistake because democracy is all right 
politically, but it’s no good in the home.” 12 

Like the panel, Hefner endorsed Wylie’s “womanization” thesis. He 
complained about the modern “submergence of the male” beneath 
a growing female authority and linked Playboy ’ s success to a male 
reaction against the threat of “a female-oriented society.” He criti- 
cized women’s influence in magazines, movies, and television with 
its “castrated, female view of life — one example out of many of the 
growing womanization of America.” His rallying cry: “We think it’s a 
man’s world, or should be.” 13 

Hefner fully aired his resentment of female domination, and the 
need for a reassertion of male authority, in a 1962 radio program: 

In the last 20 or 30 years, we have a female dominated and 
oriented society, with the roles of man and woman so similar 
that it is now quite difficult for a woman to discover exactly 
what her real identity is, or a man, either. We’ve wound up 
with an almost asexual society, with women competing with 
men instead of complementing them. ... I mean, it’s sick! 
Now, we think women are the most wonderful thing in the 
world. But we think they should be women. . . . 

For Playboy, the roles of the sexes are clearly defined. 
Society remains essentially masculine. Otherwise, neither men 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


235 


nor women know exactly whats expected of them in personal 
relations or in life. You’ll note that our girls in Playboy are 
called “Playmates” . . . and they complement and suit a man 
and his needs. And in the process, of course, they fulfill their 
own needs and desires. Have you ever known a really happy 
woman who was domineering and competitive? I haven’t. 14 

In a 1962 television panel, Hefner confronted the issue of gen- 
der equality. There was no distinction between the sexes in terms of 
“all the important intellects and capacities,” he granted, but problems 
arose when women abandoned complementary roles. Females’ com- 
petitive capacities lagged, as even a quick survey of great writers, art- 
ists, actors, and scientists revealed. “Granting Sands and the Bronte 
sisters and Elizabeth Barrett Browning — do these few names compare, 
either in size or stature, with Shakespeare, Shaw, Poe, Hemingway, 
Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Melville, Ibsen?” he argued. “Against Madame 
Curie you’ve got to place Pasteur, Darwin, Galileo, Newton, Edison, 
Einstein. It’s like putting Grandma Moses in with Picasso, Van Gogh, 
Benoir, Gauguin, and Matisse.” Hefner drew a clear conclusion: “If a 
woman is, bit by bit, denouncing her own femininity, then she is moving, 
step by step it seems to me, towards a denial of her own person.” 15 
Thus two contrary impulses regarding women vied with one 
another in the world of Playboy from the 1950s to the early 1960s. 
First, Hefner and his magazine sought to restrict females to “com- 
plementary” roles in American society, welcoming them into the 
workplace as long as they did not threaten male jobs and prestige. 
This position, of course, reflected mainstream opinion in this pre- 
feminist era. Second, Playboy campaigned to liberate young women 
from domestic roles to enjoy sexual pleasures long denied them by 
traditional American morality. Here Hefner’s publication articulated 
a position that undermined orthodox values in far-reaching ways. This 
ambiguity reflected the first strains of a massive shift in sensibility 
regarding women’s roles in modern society as Hefner, like his fellow 
citizens, entered unfamiliar territory. 

But notions of polite debate about the proper place for women in 
modern America soon crumbled. As the 1960s unfolded, opponents 
of Playboy grew increasingly outraged by its images of women and 
mobilized their forces for attack. An exchange of views disappeared 
in a cacophony of accusation and recrimination. 



236 


MR. PLAYBOY 


II 

In the spring of 1970, during two appearances on the nationally 
televised Dick Cavett Show, Hefner felt the full impact of femi- 
nist fury. The first segment placed him alongside the activists Susan 
Brownmiller and Sally Kempton to discuss the new movement for 
womens liberation. In Kempton’s blunt assessment, men “oppress 
us as women. And Hugh Hefner is my enemy.” He tried to be 
conciliatory, blaming religion for the oppression of women and con- 
tending that Playboy had supported women’s rights by endorsing 
equal job opportunities and abortion rights. The real progressive goal, 
he maintained, was to expand “human rights” for women and men. 
Brownmiller retorted scornfully that she would believe that “on the 
day that you are willing to come out here with a cotton tail attached 
to your rear end.” An audience laced with supporters applauded and 
cheered. 16 

A few weeks later, a second segment moved from the conten- 
tious to the riotous. This time Hefner confronted the feminists Holly 
Tannen and Diane Crothers. He goaded them with the term “lib 
ladies” and condemned “militant womens lib, which I find anti- 
feminine and anti-sexual.” His antagonists returned fire. Crothers 
and Tannen denounced Playboy for presenting women as “mindless 
sex objects” who were expected to serve men while “looking incred- 
ibly nineteen forever.” Hefner retorted that radical feminists simply 
endorsed the old prejudice that “if a woman is beautiful then she is 
brainless.” Playboy, he declared, “exploits sex like Sports Illustrated 
exploits sports.” Then things got out of hand. Several dozen feminists 
in the audience began shouting, “We’re oppressed people,” “This 
is a fascist country,” “We are here to demand reparation.” Two of 
them stormed the stage yelling “Fascist” and “Off the pig” before 
security officers escorted them from the studio. An angry Cavett 
declared, “We have two representatives of your movement up here. 
Now if you don’t want to let them talk, get the hell out of here.” 17 

Such confrontations revealed the intense emotion suffusing dis- 
cussions of Playboy and women’s rights by the end of the 1960s. The 
liberationist movements of that decade, which Hefner had embraced, 
now seemed like a Pandora’s box as a horde of activists turned on their 
benefactor. Hostile encounters became frequent as feminists bom- 
barded Hefner and his magazine with fusillades of pent-up hatred 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


237 


at every opportunity. This campaign, however, had been gathering 
force for several years. It first had established a beachhead in the 
early 1960s when a young female journalist had infiltrated the world 
of the Playboy Clubs and written an expose. 

Gloria Steinem was a bright, ambitious freelance journalist in New 
York City in 1963 when she accepted an assignment from Show, an 
arts and culture magazine, to go undercover at the New York City 
Playboy Club and write about her experience. She secured a posi- 
tion as a Bunny and worked at the club for several weeks. “A Bunnys 
Tale” appeared in two parts in the May and June issues, and its scath- 
ing account of women in the Playboy world raised themes that would 
fuel the feminist attack for years. 18 

Written in the form of a daily diary, Steinem s article offered no 
breathtaking revelations or scandals about life inside the Playboy 
Clubs. Instead, in an understated, detailed style she characterized a 
Bunny’s work as degrading drudgery. Steinem portrayed the Bunnies 
as cinching one another into excruciatingly tight outfits while stuffing 
the ample bosom cavity with any material they could get their hands 
on — gym socks, plastic bags, foam rubber, silk scarves, absorbent 
cotton, and many others — to meet the Playboy ideal. She denounced 
a system of rules that made Bunnies pay a daily fee for cleaning 
and upkeep of their outfits, forbade them from sitting, and awarded 
demerits for messy hair, coming back late from a break, or address- 
ing the room director by his first name. She condemned guidelines 
from the Playboy Club Bunny Manual — “You should make it seem 
that the customer’s opinions are very important” or “Always remem- 
ber, your proudest possession is your Bunny Tail. You must make 
sure it is white and fluffy” — as demeaning. But most importantly 
for an emerging feminist critique, Steinem asserted that Bunnies 
were overworked and underpaid, earning far less than the advertised 
$200 a week. She claimed that Bunnies worked long hours with few 
breaks and little food for a meager paycheck of $108 to $145 a week. 
This accusation touched a nerve as working women were beginning 
to resent unequal pay, unfair treatment, and stifled opportunity. 19 

Steinem also raised another issue — sexual objectification and 
harassment — that would become central to an emerging feminist cri- 
tique. Her work stint in the Playboy Club, she maintained, consisted 
of an endless round of sexual abasement. She claimed that club man- 
agers expected her to accompany Number One Keyholders — Playboy 



238 


MR. PLAYBOY 


executives, VIPs, influential media members — when they were in the 
club and date them if asked. She contended that male customers 
directed a constant stream of salacious comments, sexual innuendo, 
and lewd propositions her way: patrons handed her keys to their hotel 
rooms, leeringly asked her to serve drinks at a “private” party, or 
queried, “If you’re my bunny, can I take you home with me?” She 
asserted that many of the Bunnies bought into their own exploitation, 
quoting one who praised a customer because he “he treats you just 
the same whether you’ve slept with him or not.” Steinem offered a 
melodramatic conclusion. Upon leaving after a work shift, she saw a 
hooker sitting in a car. “She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. 
She looked available and was. Of the two of us, she seemed the more 
honest .” 20 

Many Bunnies were outraged by Steinem’s depiction of their 
labors as sordid and financially unrewarding. They insisted that 
their positions in the Playboy Clubs provided not only respectable 
pay and a taste of glamour for ambitious young women, but also a 
foundation for their later successes as business owners, entertainers, 
and physicians. To many of them, Steinem was an elitist with a politi- 
cal agenda. “The fact was, Gloria Steinem couldn’t identify with the 
rest of us and didn’t care to,” wrote one. “At that point in her life, she 
would never have considered working as a waitress, let alone a wait- 
ress with Bunny ears, except as research for an article. Her viewpoint 
was that of ... a privileged professional.” Deborah Harry, a Bunny 
turned rock star, described her life in the club as “a rare combination 
of women in the workplace — beauty, femininity, sexuality, and at the 
same time, ambition and intelligence.” Lauren Hutton, the future 
supermodel, described her sister Bunnies as “pre-feminist pioneers 
and extraordinarily brave for the time. . . . We were like sisters learn- 
ing together how to take charge of our own lives .” 21 

Moreover, Steinem herself displayed considerable ambiva- 
lence regarding feminist issues in this period. She wrote for Vogue, 
Glamour, and Ladies’ Home Journal, not exactly progressive bea- 
cons for women, and recently had published The Beach Book, which 
extolled oceanside fantasies about Cary Grant and martinis, Aristotle 
Onassis’s yacht, and sunbathing. Interestingly, she also had engaged 
in a mild flirtation with Hefner himself. Put in touch by a mutual 
friend, they tried unsuccessfully to meet up in New York City and 
Hefner sent a note of dismay over having missed her. “There’s the 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


239 


possibility that I should leave things as intriguing and mysterious as 
they are. Nothing you can say, as a novelist friend once pointed out 
to me, is nearly as good as what the readers will imagine,” Steinem 
wrote back. “Still, I would like to meet you sometime when you’re in 
town, so I’ll take the chance and to hell with the novelist.” 22 

By the mid-1960s, dissenting voices were growing louder in 
denouncing women’s second-class status in American society. 
Complaints mounted about discrimination and inequities in the work- 
place, restricted opportunities, and sexual exploitation. Critics had 
begun blasting Playboy for portraying women as one-dimensional 
sexual playthings. Cosmopolitan accused Hefner’s magazine of pro- 
moting the view that women served as “an accessory for the well- 
dressed bachelor. Of course, she is discarded when she reaches age 
twenty-five, or before that, if she exhibits any intelligence.” Life took 
a similar tack: “In Hefnerland, a woman is simply another aspect of 
the status-symbol mania that is stamped all over Playboy. She is no 
more or less important than the sleekest sports car or the most expen- 
sive bottle of Scotch.” A sarcastic article in Mademoiselle contended 
that real women were attracted by a man’s mind, character, and “faith 
in some values beyond the latest Italian cut in tuxedos.” 23 

Hefner reacted calmly, if defensively, to such criticism. He 
moderated his earlier views, dropping complaints about womaniza- 
tion and stressing that Playboy’s crusade for sexual liberation had 
released women from their real oppressors — a religious heritage 
that repressed their sexuality and made them chattel. “It is odd how 
many feminists fail utterly to understand the extent to which the 
emancipation of women and the sexual emancipation go together,” 
he explained in 1966. “Historically, the idea of women remaining 
chaste while men philander freely obviously stems from the notion 
that they are chattel, and that used property is not as good as unused 
property; and this idea is one that Playboy vigorously opposes.” 24 
By 1968, however, Hefner had grown testy in the face of grow- 
ing attacks. He complained that some women were so consumed 
by their grievances that they had lost sight of how the sexes “have 
everything to offer each other.” When asked if he was ever attracted 
to a woman who was smarter than he was, he snapped, “I never met 
a woman who was my intellectual superior. The most intellectu- 
ally stimulating people are not women, they’re men.” He described 
protesters against Playboy as “ridiculous” and insisted that “sexual 



240 


MR. PLAYBOY 


liberation is a major part of female emancipation,” he said. “I think 
Playboy has done more for that than just about anyone.” 25 

Meanwhile, Playboy adopted a two-part strategy in dealing with 
feminist critics. First, it sidestepped them by defining the modem 
woman as seeking a new lifestyle based on freedom and fun. “The 
New Girl,” for example, described a fresh type of “postfeminist” 
young woman who embraced an active life of “sexual freedom and 
psychedelics, skindiving and the swim, Bobby Kennedy and Bobby 
Dylan, the New Left and Civil Bights.” A photo and text article on 
“The No-Bra Look” argued that this trend combined “both a feminist 
rallying cry and a chic contemporary fashion trend.” A piece on “The 
Abortion Revolution” argued that obsolete laws against terminating 
pregnancy should be abolished in the name of female freedom. 26 

Second, the magazine positioned itself as an advocate of womens 
rights but an opponent of radical womens liberation. In a long state- 
ment in 1970, the magazine clarified its stance: 

Though we are opposed to the destructive radicalism and the 
anti-sexuality of the extremist fringe of militant feminism, our 
position on womens rights, we feel, is as consistently liberal 
as our position on all human rights. We’ve been crusading 
for a long time for universal availability of contraceptives and 
birth control information, as well as for the repeal of restric- 
tive abortion laws; we believe a womans right to control her 
own body, in sexuality and in reproduction, is an essential 
step toward greater personal freedom. Likewise, we reject the 
Victorian double standard, which applauds sexual experience 
in men and condemns it in women. . . . We are also opposed 
to the traditional stereotype that relegates women to domestic 
drudgery. We certainly believe that any woman who wants to 
shun the homemaker’s role for a career, or who wants to com- 
bine both, should have the opportunity. ... It should be need- 
less to add that we believe women ought to be given equal pay 
for work of equal value. 27 

Strident feminists, however, branded Hefner and Playboy as the 
supreme symbols of male oppression of women. Campus demon- 
strations flared up, as in April 1970 at the University of Southern 
California where a group of activists carried signs reading “We Won’t 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


241 


Take Playboy Lying Down,” heckled a magazine spokesman during a 
talk, and finally rushed the auditorium stage and tried to take over the 
microphone. Ti-Grace Atkinson, a prominent feminist, gave speeches 
describing Playboy as “middle-class pornography. We all know Hugh 
Hefner is a pig.” Militants picketed the Playboy Club in Boston and 
demanded that Bunnies come out for consciousness-raising discus- 
sions. The manager refused, saying, “I think you’ll agree they’re not 
exactly dressed for the occasion.” 28 

A dramatic moment came when Gloria Steinem arrived at the 
Chicago mansion in 1970 to interview Hefner for McCalls. They 
clashed immediately. Her article, titled “What Playboy Doesn’t 
Know About Women Could Fill a Book,” mocked the publication 
as a 1950s relic peddling fake 1960s progressivism. Steinem, by 
now a leading feminist, laid into the publisher in the best New Left 
style, accusing him of promoting a shallow, retrograde consumer- 
ism that made women into another commodity like liquor, hi-fi sets, 
and sports cars. Hefner disagreed strenuously, defending his belief 
in “capitalism with a social conscience,” women’s rights, and sexual 
freedom for males and females. As the two sparred over female 
images in Hefner’s magazine, Steinem declared, “There are times 
when a woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi 
manual.” He heatedly retorted, “I think the militant feminists want 
to be men.” 29 

Finally, Hefner struck back at his political tormenters. At his 
instigation, Playboy solicited an article on feminism and approached 
the freelance writer Susan Braudy. She joked that she wanted to 
write such a compelling piece that the Playboy editors would soon be 
“renaming their magazine Play People.” Her original draft analyzed 
the women’s liberation movement and argued that stereotypes for 
both sexes were breaking down under the impact of feminism. The 
magazine accepted the piece but asked for revisions that stressed 
the differences between “the radical crazies and the moderates.” 
Then Hefner demanded a stronger critique of militant feminism. 
When Braudy refused to make wholesale changes, Playboy killed 
the article while paying her the writer’s fee. The magazine then 
reassigned the project to Morton Hunt, who presented “Up Against 
the Wall, Chauvinist Pig!” in the May 1970 issue. It recapitulated the 
main lines of Hefner’s critique: while progressives agreed on end- 
ing discrimination in terms of legal rights, workplace equity, and 



242 


MR. PLAYBOY 


sexual freedom, these proper reforms were being overshadowed by 
“militant man-haters who do their level best to distort the distinctions 
between male and female and to discredit the legitimate grievances 
of American women.” 30 

Just as the Hunt article was about to appear, controversy exploded. 
On April 15, 1970, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee held a fund- 
raiser at the Playboy Mansion, but as the guests arrived, they were 
greeted by some three hundred anti -Playboy protesters organized by 
the Chicago Womens Liberation Union. The picketers waved signs 
reading “Peace, Not Piece” and “Sign Your Check But Don’t Go In,” 
and jeered at guests who entered the house of “sexploitation.” Several 
dozen police arrived to cordon off the entrance and ended up arrest- 
ing several of the protesters. Inside, against a backdrop of antiwar 
speechmaking, traumatized liberals compared notes on running the 
gauntlet outside. “I’ve crossed picket lines before, but never one as 
vicious as that,” said Rod Serling. “I felt like I was walking into the 
Twilight Zone.” Then Shelly Schlicker, a secretary at Playboy, began 
to loudly criticize the magazine and its attitude toward women. As 
reporters gathered around, she complained that the upcoming Hunt 
article “puts down women’s lib” and that two secretaries had been 
dismissed for refusing to type it. “I’ll probably get fired for saying all 
this,” she added. 31 

A few days later, Schlicker secretly copied and released to the 
press the in-house Hefner memo that had fueled the Hunt article. Its 
heated reaction to the original Braudy piece revealed the publisher’s 
state of mind: 

[W]hat we have is a well-balanced, objective article, but what 
I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists 
apart. . . . What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emo- 
tional, kookie trend that feminism has taken in the last couple 
of years. . . . These chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to 
do battle with them. . . . 

We certainly agree that a woman’s place is not in the home, 
that a woman should enjoy a career. . . . But the militant 
feminists want much more than this — essentially she wants to 
play a role exactly comparable to the male’s, to compete with 
him not simply in the business world but emotionally, and in 
every other way. The only subject related to feminism that is 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


243 


worth doing is on this new militant phenomenon and the only 
proper playboy approach is one that devastates it . 32 

An uproar ensued. Playboy fired Schlicker for publicly circulating 
a confidential corporate communication, and she responded by join- 
ing feminist groups to protest outside the Playboy Building. Raising a 
clenched fist for television cameras, she declared, “I am joining with 
my sisters to fight Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and everything they stand 
for. . . . We will no longer sell ourselves in return for a pair of ears and 
a tail and a condescending pat on the behind.” As Newsweek noted, 
while Hefner refused to retract anything, he was “surely hunkering 
down in anticipation of even more trouble.” 33 

The infamous memo cemented Hefner s reputation among wom- 
en’s liberationists as the Antichrist. Playboy later would provide a 
forum to feminist critics such as Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan, 
but the hostility remained. Hefner felt hurt, even betrayed by this 
vilification. Knowing that Playboy had carried the flag for progressive 
reform in behalf of civil rights, disengagement in Vietnam, and sexual 
liberation, he could not fathom why many liberals now branded him 
a villain. “Playboys been on the side of humanity and reason in all 
the causes that are important, so you’d think that female emancipa- 
tors would separate their friends from their enemies,” he asserted 
in 1969. 34 

But Hefners public pronouncements on feminism provided only 
one perspective on his views of women. His private experiences 
offered another. As much as any debating points in public exchanges, 
the nature of his close relationships with females over the first four 
decades of his life revealed much about his attitude toward women 
and their place in society. 


Ill 

Hefners understanding of women had taken root during his boy- 
hood in rather barren emotional soil. He had imbibed emotional 
repression from his mother, Grace, who had withheld affection even 
as she indulged most of his whims. At the same time, through an 
addiction to the movies and popular music, he absorbed exaggerated 
notions of female beauty and highly sentimental notions of romance. 



244 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Then during late adolescence, he had been stunned when Millie 
Williams, his fiancee, betrayed him by having a sexual affair with 
a coworker. Hefner never got over these youthful influences. He 
reached adulthood with a complex, ambivalent view of women and 
their motives and inclinations. It was in equal parts adoring and sus- 
picious, loving and manipulative, lusty and resentful. He relentlessly 
pursued and bedded women as the sweet side of his nature searched 
for “a place where the lyrics to the songs are true,” as he often 
described, yet the controlling side sought to keep the upper hand 
emotionally. At some level, he was aware of these internal conflicts, 
once telling an interviewer that “intellectually, I may think in a cer- 
tain way; practically, I may act in another way. ... I am and I remain 
a combination of incoherences that I uselessly try to reject.” 35 
This ambiguous sensibility shaped Hefner s lifelong habit of estab- 
lishing relationships with much younger women. From Betty Zuziak 
and Joyce Nizzari in the 1950s to Cynthia Maddox and Mary Warren 
in the 1960s and Barbi Benton in the late 1960s (not to mention 
countless others for shorter duration), he gravitated toward beautiful 
females in their early twenties. In one sense, this impulse expressed 
the mysterious compulsion of male lust and the unique opportunities 
for venting it that appeared in the Playboy world. But the attrac- 
tion to young women also met deeper emotional needs. On the one 
hand, they provided the publisher a strong dose of nonthreatening 
affection that made his world seem warm and safe. On the other 
hand, their youthful inexperience allowed him to maintain emotional 
control. Hefner expressed this ambivalent urge perfectly in a 1966 
interview. “I pick good-looking, young girls because I get something 
very good out of the innocence and sweetness that exists at that level,” 
he admitted, then added a revealing addendum: “Most of the girls 
I have gone out with have benefited because I give them an identity 
and, when they come out of the machine, they are better for it.” 36 
This sensibility also led Hefner to avoid involvement not with 
smart women, as his critics often accused, but accomplished ones. “I 
don’t feel uncomfortable with an intelligent woman. Simply, I do not 
know what to do with her,” he confessed. The publisher wanted to 
adore and protect women, and to enjoy their devotion in return, while 
pitting himself against men. He perceived males in terms of intellec- 
tual stimulation and competitive accomplishment, saw females as 
sources of affection and love, and grew uncomfortable when either 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


245 


gender transcended those familiar confines. “In a lot of ways, I’m a 
very dominant guy and am attracted to a very feminine, submissive 
kind of woman. The truly competitive female leaves me cold,” he 
noted in 1968. Thus women who sought to be like men — such as 
militant feminists, in his perception — turned his emotional universe 
on its head. As he told an interviewer, “It’s not brains that turns me 
off a girl; it’s that emotionally castrating thing.” 37 

Hefners internal impulses also made him a firm believer in the 
double standard. While he proclaimed that the sexual revolution had 
liberated women for sexual experiences just like men, his actions 
fell short of his words. As Cynthia Maddox described, “Of course, 
I was always theoretically free to do as I pleased, but I abided by 
TTef s rules. If I was on a date with another boy, heaven help me if 
he even kissed me.” Hefner admitted that while he wanted to play 
around, when his girlfriends did so “I was rather hurt.” He blamed 
his upbringing for the hypocrisy. “You know, I still have some of the 
Puritan heritage that I grew up with. There are gaps between what 
I intellectually believe in and the man I am,” he admitted in the late 
1960s. “I’m afraid I believe in a double-standard for men and women 
in actual situations far more than I want to admit.” 38 

Thus for Hefner the traditionalist, affectionate and attractive 
young women provided companionship, fun, and sexual satisfaction 
and would adapt to the contours of his life. They would be bright 
enough to be interesting, but not so accomplished as to threaten his 
domination of the relationship. They would remain sexually true to 
him, while he retained the option of sleeping with others. This repre- 
sented, of course, a heightened version of mainstream male attitudes 
toward women in a pre-feminist age: women were expected to sup- 
port and “complement” men. Hefner, like almost all American males, 
struggled to accommodate new notions of female equality. 

But for Hefner the rebel, sex moved front and center stage. The 
issue of the “sexual objectification” of women became the divid- 
ing line as feminist critics insisted that Playboy reduced women to 
objects of physical desire and downplayed their intelligence, char- 
acter, and achievements. Hefner disagreed passionately. “Playboy 
treats women — and men, too, for that matter — as sexual beings, not 
as sexual objects,” he countered, and the cause of sexual liberation 
“helped women step down from their pedestals and enjoy their natu- 
ral sexuality as much as men.” He denied portraying women as a kind 



246 


MR. PLAYBOY 


of consumer item, like a sports car or fine wine. “Far from being an 
accessory to the good life, women — and the romantic liaison between 
them and our male readers — are the very point and purpose of what 
Playboy espouses as a guide for living,” he insisted. 39 

There seemed to be little common ground for understanding 
between Hefner and his feminist foes. But a broader historical per- 
spective suggests otherwise. The antagonists — caught up in a profound 
transformation that reached to fundamental questions of status, biol- 
ogy, identity, and social organization — shared more than they knew in 
laboring to direct and grasp this sea change. Their common struggle 
illuminated several historical issues. 

First, Playboy and the feminist movement worked in tandem to 
undermine the domestic, suburban “family togetherness” model of 
1950s America. The noted feminist Barbara Ehrenreich accused 
Hefner of employing the rhetoric of sexual revolution to mask his real 
goal: encouraging men to abandon marriage and family in a “flight 
from commitment.” This argument, however, overlooks the fact that 
Betty Friedan, and many other feminists, focused on a similar target. 
The Feminine Mystique maintained that women had been imprisoned 
in the American home by the demands of childrearing, homemak- 
ing, and marriage. Unhappy, anxious, even depressed, they desper- 
ately sought escape from this “comfortable concentration camp.” In 
this goal, Playboy and feminism shared more than either would ever 
admit. 40 

Moreover, both Playboy and modern feminism were part of 
a larger crusade promoting an ethos of self-fulfillment in modern 
America. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, main- 
stream culture had steadily jettisoned traditional Victorian values 
of self-control and self-denial for a new agenda of finding happi- 
ness by fulfilling, not suppressing, appetites. Hefners version of 
self-fulfillment, as Ehrenreich has described, focused not only on 
“the Playmates in the centerfold . . . but a wealth of other consumer 
items . . . imported liquor, stereo sets, mens colognes, luxury cars, and 
fine clothes.” Yet her indictment overlooks feminisms own agenda 
of self-gratification. Feminists did not focus explicitly on consumer 
prosperity because they assumed it. As Friedan observed, much of 
womens postwar conundrum stemmed from “our abundant society” 
where middle-class people had unprecedented leisure time. The 
Feminine Mystique instructed that feminism should focus on helping 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


247 


women to find “‘self-realization’ or ‘self-fulfillment’ or ‘identity’ . . . 
break out of the housewife trap and . . . [start] fulfilling their own 
unique possibilities as separate human beings.” In terms of this broad 
historical development, Hefner and women’s liberationists again 
shared more than they ever recognized. 41 

In addition, both Playboy and its feminist critics overemphasized 
the power of sexual imagery. For Hefner, erotic representations 
of the female body pointed the way to human freedom and happi- 
ness, while for feminists they inscribed a kind of slavery for women. 
Both sides exaggerated. While sex is a vital part of human life, it is 
far from being the most important. In trying to make it so, along 
with the visual images that arouse it, both disputants distorted real 
life. Their extreme positions — Hefner defining unfettered sex as the 
road to nirvana with Playboy photos as signposts; many early femi- 
nists denouncing the sex act as inherently exploitive and female nudes 
as posters of oppression — granted undue power to a single aspect of 
human endeavor. Both overlook the likelihood that erotic imagery, 
whether evocative or scandalous, pleasurable or annoying, is often 
relatively inconsequential. 

Finally, both Hefner and his feminist critics evolved on the issue 
of the struggle for women’s rights. The publisher changed from a 
romantic paternalist and denouncer of “womanization” in the 1950s 
to an equal-rights liberal by the 1970s. He came to endorse a main- 
stream agenda similar to that of Betty Friedan and the National 
Organization for Women (NOW): integration of women into the pub- 
lic sphere, equal pay for equal work, and abortion rights. Feminism 
also evolved as it began splintering into contending factions by the 
early 1970s. “Equity feminism,” or the movement for legal and social 
equality of women eventually endorsed by Hefner, made steady gains 
in the culture and legal system. “Gender feminism,” a newer, more 
revolutionary movement inspired by books such as Kate Millett’s 
Sexual Politics (1970), contended that women were prisoners of 
a patriarchal system and engaged in a gender war with their male 
oppressors. This smaller, more radical movement mainly influenced 
academe and the intelligentsia. By the mid-1970s, Hefner and 
many equity feminists stood together, albeit uneasily, in the liberal 
mainstream, and in later years feminists such as Christina Hoff 
Sommers, Camille Paglia, and even Friedan herself would come to 
the publisher’s defense. 42 



248 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Ultimately, the flashpoint issue of sexual objectification revealed 
the shortcomings of both Hefner and early womens liberation- 
ists. The problem was not so much portraying women as sexual 
objects. In one sense, women are sexual objects for men, in the same 
way that men, perhaps to a lesser extent, are for women. The prob- 
lem comes in portraying them only in this light. Early feminists pin- 
pointed Playboy’s penchant for superficial sexuality, but exaggerated 
both the intent and the impact. At the same time, Hefner reasonably 
defended his magazine s erotic portrayal of women as a legitimate 
aspect of the sexual revolution, but refused to recognize that Playboy 
often underplayed other aspects of female humanity. This tendency 
appeared on the March 1972 cover, which depicted a woman in the 
shape of a liquor bottle with a Playboy corkscrew lying alongside. 

Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion came from the writer 
Joyce Carol Oates, who reported that she had received an appeal 
from NOW asking her to boycott Playboy as a future publication 
venue. Hefners magazine, it said, mocked “the central message of 
the womens movement, that women are and should be treated as 
human beings.” While admitting some sympathy with the entreaty, 
this distinguished writer ultimately rejected it in an eloquent reply: 

I cannot claim to have much interest in the pictorial aspect 
of playboy, but I see no reason to focus upon certain pages 
and deliberately to neglect the very real presence of others. 
playboy has published exceptionally fine interviews in recent 
years (one of them with Germaine Greer, who was allowed 
to be as frank and insulting and critical of playboy as she 
pleased), some important articles, and . . . some very inter- 
esting fiction. The stories of mine that appeared in playboy 
dealt with male/female conflicts — and in nearly every case, 

I dramatized the continuing cruelty of the myth of male supe- 
riority in such a way that any reader, male or whatever, should 
have felt some sympathy and understanding for women. . . . 

I have never published anything in any magazine on the 
basis of my agreeing, entirely, with every page of that maga- 
zine. In a democratic society, there must be avenues of com- 
munication in publications that appeal to a wide variety of 
people, otherwise writers with certain beliefs will be read 
only by people with those same beliefs, and change or growth 



WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? 


249 


would come to an end. playboy is astonishingly liberal, and 
even revolutionary in certain respects. . . . 

My personal belief is that worship of youth, flesh, and 
beauty of a limited nature is typically American and is fairly 
innocuous. . . . [Y]our anger over PLAYBOY and its hedonistic 
philosophy is possibly misdirected. 43 

Indeed, the protests against Playboy gradually died down. But 
animosity among womens liberationists remained strong, resurfacing 
a decade later in a strange alliance with social conservatives in the 
Reagan administration. But as the 1970s unfolded, Playboy’s guerrilla 
war with feminism moved off center stage as more pressing issues 
arose to demand Hefners attention. They would challenge both his 
personal well-being and his professional survival. 



13 


Down the Rabbit Hole 


A s the 1970s began, Hugh Hefner, in his own words, “had the 
world on a string.” The Chicago publisher spread the gospel of 
personal freedom and material abundance to countless converts 
as much of his Aquarian Age dream actually seemed to materialize. 
In 1972, Playboy reached a zenith of popularity with sales of seven 
million magazines while Playboy Enterprises, Inc., expanded not 
only into Playboy Clubs but hotels, resorts, filmmaking, books, and 
records. Hefner personified the lifestyle he promoted. Surrounded 
by beautiful women and celebrities in the Chicago mansion, he now 
commuted regularly to Los Angeles and soon would purchase a sec- 
ond estate in the Beverly Hills area. Moreover, he had fallen in love 
with a beautiful young woman. Personally happy and professionally 
triumphant beyond his wildest dreams, Hefner stood poised in the 
early 1970s for coronation as the monarch of a Disney-style leisure 
empire. He celebrated with his own version of the Roaring Twenties, 
an exuberant era he always resented having missed. 1 

Before long, however, Hefner and Playboy became caught up in 
the complex cultural and political dynamic of the decade. Flowing 
between the revolutionary 1960s and the conservative era inaugurated 


250 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


251 


by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1970s were marked by a gradual but 
inexorable process of polarization. On the one hand, this period saw 
the fulfillment of 1960s liberation as many disciples of the sexual and 
cultural revolution carried their crusade to full maturation. On the other 
hand, a growing backlash gathered momentum as much of Middle 
America increasingly drew back from radical excesses to embrace tra- 
ditional social and political values. 

To complicate matters further, ordinary citizens beset by political 
exhaustion from Watergate, “Rust Relt” deindustrialization, inter- 
national weakness in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, and social 
dislocation from a powerful shift from the urban Northeast to the 
“Sun Relt” of the South and West, fled the public realm. With a new 
sense of limits and loss of optimism, many people — from evangelical 
Christians to therapeutic liberals to New Age reformers — began turn- 
ing inward to personal experiences and self-exploration. Increasingly 
skeptical of remaking the world, Americans, in the words of one his- 
torian, “chased new pasts, new futures, new Gods — and they chased 
them by and for themselves.” 2 

Hefner and his magazine stood at the convergence of these trends. 
Symbolizing liberation, fueling reaction, and promoting a preoccu- 
pation with self, they reflected the powerful countercurrents of the 
age. Even as the publisher reveled in the liberationist excesses of 
the Swinging Seventies, he was forced to confront its positive and 
negative consequences. New challenges appeared in his struggles with 
an upstart magazine competitor, a volatile business atmosphere, and a 
drug scandal that placed him and his enterprise in mortal danger. Rut 
perhaps the first sign of commingled possibilities and problems came 
with romantic turmoil in his private life. 


I 

Since mid-1968, when Rarbi Renton had captured his heart, Hugh 
Hefner had never been happier. To be near the young UCLA coed, 
he gradually abandoned Chicago to spend increasing amounts of time 
in Southern California. He overcame his dislike of traveling to spend 
several weeks in 1969 and 1970 escorting her and a group of friends on 
tours of Europe and Africa. Ry the following year, he was residing nearly 
half the time in a second home in an exclusive area of Los Angeles. 



252 


MR. PLAYBOY 


But in the spring of 1971 Hefner put every t hing at risk. He met 
a voluptuous young blonde in Chicago who attracted his romantic 
attentions, and within a few months he found himself involved in a 
love triangle that stretched across half the country and demanded 
a precarious balancing act of emotions and energy. Always the film 
fan, Hefner compared his situation to The Captains Paradise, the 
1953 comedy where Alec Guinness portrayed a ship captain sailing 
between Gibraltar and Tangier with a lover in each port. “In the 
movie, the arrangement ended in disaster with both loves leaving 
him. Could I hope for any better conclusion?” Hefner asked rhetori- 
cally. The answer, of course, was no. The situation unraveled, but not 
before a series of events, exhilarating and stressful alike, threw his 
personal life into tumult for several years. 3 

Barbi Benton, in many ways, was Hefners dream girl. Cute, 
energetic, and charming, this former cheerleader and Miss Teenage 
America contestant embodied his vivid adolescent fantasies of femi- 
ninity. The allure was irresistible. “Barbi was the sort of girl you had 
a crush on in high school or college who was invariably pinned to the 
captain of the football team or some other BMOC,” the publisher 
observed. 4 

More subtly, another aspect of Benton s personality came to fas- 
cinate Hefner. The perky brunette proved to have ambitions that 
almost equaled his. Savoring the limelight, she loved her new high- 
profile status and used it as a springboard to launch a brief film and 
television career and, more successfully, a singing career. “She wanted 
to model, be in the movies, become a celebrity, become a somebody,” 
Hefner observed. “I saw this yearning in Barbi and encouraged it.” 
Within a few years, after several singing tours and several recurring 
television roles, she was delighted when a group of fans approached 
the couple at a public event and “more wanted her autograph than 
mine,” Hefner reported. She also enjoyed the opulence of the Playboy 
lifestyle. Once, when giving a tour of Hefners home, a visitor asked 
about the material in a large chandelier. She replied (Hefner took to 
calling these “Barbieisms”), “Bronze or brass, whichever s better.” 5 

But the relationship began to exhibit strain as Benton increasingly 
sought to escape Hefners shadow and establish her own public iden- 
tity. They disagreed over her attempt to start a musical career. He 
made her cry after hearing a practice session and commenting that 
she would never become a singer. “He said, Tm not telling you this, 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


253 


darling, because I want to hurt you. It’s because I don’t want to hurt 
you,’” Benton related. “I took it as a challenge.” And indeed, despite 
her thin voice, Benton became a fairly popular country singer within a 
few years, and Hefner became supportive. She also made strides as 
a comedic actress on television, joining the cast of the popular comedic 
revue Hee Haw , and securing a recurring role on The Love Boat. 6 

Hefners dalliances with other women also created tensions. While 
Benton was his special girl, the publisher was far from monogamous. 
In the early 1970s he had flings with many Playmates, including 
Marilyn Cole, Janice Pennington, Sharon Johansen, Lillian Mueller, 
and Hope Olson. He also enjoyed countless casual sexual encounters. 
On a trip to St. Tropez in August 1971, for example, he spent several 
days on a rented yacht and concluded his stay, in his own words, “by 
bedding two British Bunnies in a menage a trois.” Two years later, 
during one of Benton’s absences, a friend “brought over three cute 
chicks on Saturday night to cheer me up and we had a little scene in 
the grotto and the bedroom.” Benton tried to be stoical about the 
situation. “I object to it, but I don’t hassle him; a girl just has to accept 
it — guys fool around,” she told a Cosmopolitan reporter. “It doesn’t 
mean he loves the other girls.” 7 

But Benton remained ignorant of the fact that Hefner had become 
deeply involved with another woman. He met Karen Christy when she 
arrived at the Chicago mansion in May 1971. A twenty-year-old Texan 
from Abilene, she had attended North Texas State University as an 
art student, worked as a model and corporate secretary in Dallas, and 
won a local Playboy Bunny Hunt in Dallas. She agreed to move north 
and work in the Chicago Playboy Club because it would get her closer 
to her dream — attending the Chicago Art Institute. As she settled 
into the mansion dormitory, the other girls “thought I was a hick from 
the sticks. And I was.” She met Hefner at a party and was struck by 
his casual, friendly manner and wonderful sense of humor. 8 

Hefner was smitten by this blonde bombshell. Christy had a baby 
face with large eyes, upturned nose, full lips, and a stunning figure. 
Partial to flashy, revealing clothes, she was wearing a pink, one-piece 
hot-pants outfit that highlighted her voluptuous physique. They 
spent the rest of the evening together, joking and flirting, playing 
pool and pinball, munching on a midnight supper, then descending 
to the mansion’s underwater bar for drinks and a long, quiet conversa- 
tion. Their evening culminated with a movie in his bedroom and an 



254 


MR. PLAYBOY 


embrace on his round bed. “I can still remember the magic moment 
when I started to slowly unzip the front of her outfit and she didn’t 
stop me,” Hefner recalled later. 9 

Hefner found the young Texas beauty enormously seductive. 
“I don’t think I was ever more physically attracted to anyone than 
Karen Christy,” he said later. “She was sweet, soft, and sensual, all at 
the same time” and displayed an “erotic playfulness” that triggered his 
sexual ardor. If Barbi Benton embodied Hefner’s high school cheer- 
leader fantasies, Christy represented another, cinematic set of images 
from his youth. In his words, “she looked like she’d stepped out of 
one of those Busby Berkeley musicals from the early Thirties.” Their 
sex life became, even by his standards, particularly passionate. 10 

This shy southern girl appealed to Hefner with her sweet drawl, 
down-home charm, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. She 
shared his enthusiasm for movies and games and they spent hours 
watching films in the mansion ballroom and playing backgammon, 
Monopoly, Risk, and pinball with a small group of mansion regu- 
lars: Shel Silverstein, Bobbie Arnstein, Gene Siskel, and John Dante. 
She proved ingenious at giving him unique gifts. For their marathon 
Monopoly games, she commissioned small board figurines of him 
and her — he was depicted in a bathrobe smoking a pipe, she in a 
hot-pants outfit — as well as the other four regular players. Another 
time she presented him with a lifelike portrait of herself as a reclining 
nude painted in the Vargas style with a special hinge in the frame that 
exposed her pubic area. 11 

At Hefner’s request, Christy soon moved into a first-floor apartment 
at the mansion. As their relationship deepened, the publisher show- 
ered the Texas beauty with outlandish gifts: a full-length white mink 
coat, a white Mark IV Lincoln automobile, a five-carat diamond cock- 
tail ring from Tiffany’s. He also chose her as Playboy’s Miss December 
1971. Christy returned this affection, becoming his steady companion 
in Chicago and accompanying him on jaunts to Walt Disney World, 
the Caribbean, and a backgammon tournament in New York City. She 
patiently awaited his return from trips to Los Angeles, once decorating 
the Chicago mansion trees with yellow ribbons in a reference to the hit 
song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” which celebrated a lover’s homecoming 
in such a fashion. Hefner delighted in these sentimental gestures. By 
the end of 1972, he confessed, “my love for her had become every 
bit the equal of what I felt for Barbi.” 12 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


255 


Thus throughout 1972 and the first half of 1973, Hefner found 
himself in a full-fledged love triangle with two beautiful young 
women. Trying to balance them, he flitted from the Midwest to the 
West Coast on an every-other-week schedule, alternately spend- 
ing time with either Benton or Christy while making long-distance 
calls to the other. The stress of the situation occasionally turned to 
comedy. He wrote a memo instructing that Christy’s pinball scores 
be erased from the tote board in the game room when Benton was 
on the premises, and then put back when she left. Another time, when 
Hefner had Christy over at his Los Angeles mansion while Benton 
was gone, he instructed his security people to detain the mistress 
of the manor at the gate should she return and signal him by cut- 
ting off the piped-in music. As the publisher and his blonde girl- 
friend were consorting in the grotto, the music suddenly stopped 
and Christy, wrapped in a towel, dashed to a waiting limo to be 
whisked out the back gate. A few minutes later, Hefner realized that it 
had been a false alarm from a simple gap in the tape. Sitting alone, 
he heard the music resume. 13 

Each point on the love triangle offered a different perspective. 
Benton realized that her famous boyfriend saw other women but 
remained in the dark about her new rival. Christy, who knew 
about Benton, of course, faced things realistically. She accepted 
Hefners reassurances that the Benton relationship was nearing an 
end, noting “you’d have to be a real idiot to believe something a 
man says to you about another girl. I mean, I was naive but I wasn’t 
stupid.” Hefner rationalized what he was doing as a variation on the 
old wife-mistress fantasy of sustaining a comfortable, harmonious 
relationship in public and an exciting, illicit relationship in private. 
As for his efforts to hold it all together, he used the old vaudeville 
quip about using every available minute in a show: “I’m dancing as 
fast as I can.” 14 

In the summer of 1973, the situation finally exploded. Earlier, 
Benton had grown suspicious of Hefner when she found white bobby 
pins in his bathrobe and saw one of his assistants walk by with a 
notepad upon which was a scribble about “a mink coat for Karen 
Christy.” When Benton inquired, Hefner reassured her it was noth- 
ing and that “you’re the girl I love.” But then came an unmistakable, 
public sign of betrayal. An article in Time on men’s magazines blew 
his cover with this description: “Long a two-of-eveiything consumer, 



256 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefner has lately extended the principle to his romantic life. Former 
Playmate Barbi Benton, his longtime escort, lives in the California 
mansion; blonde Karen Christy, an ex-Bunny in the Chicago Playboy 
Club, is ensconced in his Chicago quarters. Somehow the arrange- 
ment continues to work.” It also featured an incriminating photo- 
graph of Hefner with his arm around Christy watching a movie at the 
Chicago mansion. A furious Benton confronted Hefner and moved 
out of the Playboy Mansion West in a huff and got her own apart- 
ment. In Benton’s words, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with 
him. I just thought he was a cheat and a liar.” After several weeks, she 
surrendered to his entreaties and moved back in the mansion, but 
she kept the apartment for insurance. 15 

The situation grew increasingly stressful as Benton and Christy 
sniped at one another, and at Hefner, in the press. In People mag- 
azine, Benton described Christy as “just another girl who lives in 
one of the bunny dorms” and added, “I thought it was a bit tacky of 
[Hefner] to allow a photographer to shoot a picture of him with his 
arm around another girl when I have been living with him as his wife 
for five years.” Christy dismissed Benton. ‘Why should I be jealous? 
She used to live in the Mansion. Now she doesn’t,” she told a reporter. 
At Thanksgiving 1973 tensions escalated when Benton and Christy 
both sought to spend the holiday with the publisher. Benton began 
to see other men, having an affair with a fellow cast member on Hee 
Haw and sleeping with an old boyfriend on a ski trip. 16 

Then t hings began to crumble with Christy. She confessed to an 
affair with Val Lownes, Victor Lowness son, when she was lonely dur- 
ing Hefner’s many absences. They reconciled, but things were never 
the same. The couple began to quarrel, and Christy became increas- 
ingly spunky in asserting herself. She began to demand parity in the 
relationship, and he responded angrily. “[He would] stomp his feet and 
beat his pipe on the table and turn purple in the face,” she described. 
“I just thought he was spoiled, he’s always had everything he wants for 
so many years, that he really doesn’t remember what it’s like to have 
to compromise.” But Christy stood her ground and Bobbie Arnstein, 
Hefner’s executive secretaiy, said, “She didn’t think anybody could talk 
back to him . . . the way I did and get away with it.” 17 

The young Texan, for all of the blonde-bimbo stereotypes, was 
no dummy. While deeply fond of her older lover and the mansion 
lifestyle, she always saw the arrangement as temporary and grew 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


257 


weary of his domineering ways and escapades with other women. 
“I loved Hef but he’s very manipulative ... I resented it,” she 
explained. During one particularly bitter quarrel, Christy claimed 
that she loved him more than he did her. When he replied that she 
should love him more, she furiously exclaimed, “Why should I love 
you more? Because you’re rich and famous? You’re always saying you 
don’t want people to love you because you’re rich and famous and 
that’s the only thing about you that makes you more loveable than 
me.” She stalked out of the room and left the mansion. The distraught 
publisher learned that she had gone to a girlfriend’s nearby place and, 
even though it was after midnight, he went throughout the apartment 
building ringing doorbells until he located her. Standing outside the 
door, he pleaded with her to return, and appeared so contrite that 
she finally agreed. 18 

By early 1974, however, Christy concluded that her life with 
Hefner had reached a dead end. She realized “he would do anything 
in the world for you as long as it didn’t inconvenience him in any 
way. In other words, what Hef needed came first to Hef, and what you 
needed came second.” In March she finally left for good. In order to 
escape the bodyguards who accompanied her in public, she went to a 
favorite dress shop, slipped out through the rear service entrance, and 
took a cab to a girlfriend’s, who had “borrowed” her white Lincoln the 
day before. Christy drove to Texas, and while Hefner called several 
times to convince her to come back, she refused. Over the next few 
years they would have several brief rendezvous, but the relationship 
was over. 19 

Benton and Hefner patched things up and stayed together a few 
more years, but their romance slowly withered. Not only did her 
career keep her away for great stretches of time, but the issue of 
marriage and children drove a wedge between them. While Benton 
wanted to get married and have children, Hefner balked. They dis- 
cussed the topic many times but disagreed on what was said — Benton 
claimed that Hefner proposed to her, while he adamantly denied 
doing so. The relationship finally collapsed in 1976 when she accused 
him of having an affair with one of her close friends. Bemused, he 
demanded who had told her, and when Benton named the informant, 
he said, “Oh, she did, huh? Well, I had an affair with her, too.” That was 
the last straw for Benton, and she moved out for good. But she never got 
over Hefner completely. Years later she still reminisced fondly about 



258 


MR. PLAYBOY 


their years together: “Wherever I go or whoever I end up with, that’s 
a torch I’ll always carry. Hef was the love of my life.” 20 

The complications of Hefner’s romantic life in the early 1970s 
proved to be portentous. At the veiy time he was struggling to maintain 
simultaneous relationships with two girlfriends, a much more serious 
situation arose. A drug scandal erupted in the heart of his world, 
the Chicago mansion, as agents of the federal government began to 
circle. Accusation, arrest, suicide, and banner headlines followed and 
threatened to destroy the fantasy life that he had created. 


II 

On December 9, 1974, the front-page headline in the Chicago Tribune 
blared, “Federal Drug Probers Zeroing in on Hefner.” The exclusive 
story informed readers that the publisher had become “a prime target 
of a federal narcotics investigation” and was suspected of harboring 
illicit drug activity at his mansions and ordering a cover-up when 
drug agents closed in. According to one source, “he’s in a helluva 
lot of trouble. There is no doubt about it.” The next day, a Chicago 
Sun-Times headline fed the uproar by claiming “Hollywood Figures 
Tied to Playboy Drug Probe,” especially a prominent movie actor 
who allegedly had transported illegal drugs to Hefner’s Los Angeles 
mansion. 21 

While shocking to the public, these stories did not surprise those 
close to the situation. For the last two years, in fact, federal drug 
agents had been stalking Hefner. It had begun in September 1972 
when the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) contacted Bobbie 
Arnstein, Hefner’s executive assistant at the Chicago mansion and one 
of his closest friends. Agents accused her of participating in a drug- 
carrying venture on a trip to Miami with her boyfriend, Ron Scharf, 
about a year earlier. Over the next two months, they interrogated her 
three more times. In December, DEA agents arrested Scharf and two 
other men and indicted them on charges of transporting cocaine to 
Chicago. Meanwhile, they continued to grill Arnstein, accusing her of 
conspiring in a drug-running operation, goading her to testify against 
Scharf, and, most importantly, pressuring her to finger the ultimate 
recipient of the illegal drugs. From the beginning, they made it clear 
that they were after bigger game — namely, her boss — and dangled 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


259 


the prospect of immunity in return for her cooperation. Protesting 
Hefners utter innocence, she steadfastly refused. 22 

Over the next fifteen months, government lawyers — they included 
James Thompson, the U.S. attorney, and Douglas P. Roller, attorney 
for the Justice Departments special strike force — built their case. 
Finally, on March 21, 1974, DEA agents arrested Arnstein on the 
sidewalk as she exited the Playboy Mansion on charges of conspiracy 
to distribute and sell cocaine. As newspaper photographers snapped 
pictures, officers handcuffed her and looked through her purse, 
where a vial of cocaine was discovered. As they took her away, she 
quipped, with a burst of black humor for which she was known, “But 
I haven’t had lunch.” The ordeal that began, however, would be any- 
thing but funny. 23 

After being released on bond, Arnstein suffered mounting 
government pressure to implicate Hefner. This investigation, while 
aimed at the Playboy publisher, in a larger sense represented a 
counterattack against 1960s rebellion. Never popular with local 
Chicago authorities, who were offended by his social and cultural 
values, Hefner had made Richard Nixons infamous “enemies list” 
as a representative of 1960s liberal degeneracy. Antidrug zealots in 
the government, representing a conservative backlash from Middle 
America, viewed him as an outlandish symbol of that decades dis- 
senting lifestyle. Given the sex-and-drugs values of many counter- 
cultural figures, and the increasing popularity of cocaine among the 
beautiful people in entertainment circles, it was not surprising that 
the Playboy Mansion came under suspicion. When a young woman 
close to Hefner surfaced in a drug sting, representatives of the Silent 
Majority saw their chance to bring him low. 24 

But one problem sullied this scenario: Hefner, despite the pros- 
ecutors’ suspicions, was no drug-culture enthusiast. For many years, 
of course, he had habitually used amphetamines because they kept 
him awake for marathon work sessions. By the late 1960s, he also 
occasionally smoked marijuana, primarily for its salutary effect on 
lovemaking. But he notoriously avoided harder drugs of all kinds. As 
Hefner explained later, “Everyone close to me knew that I was more 
conservative in my attitude about drugs than most of my friends. 
I had never used cocaine ... I had never seen anyone use cocaine 
precisely because my friends knew my attitude, my prejudice against 
hard drugs.” 25 



260 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Nonetheless, the DEA and federal prosecutors were convinced 
that Hefner presided over a cocaine emporium at the Playboy 
Mansion. And the fact that some of his friends were indulging in 
the stylish new drug made him vulnerable. Arnstein was caught up 
in this larger struggle. The authorities relentlessly pressured her to 
provide evidence of a drug pipeline to her boss. Knowing of Hefner s 
innocence, and racked with guilt over the torrent of trouble she had 
brought down on him, she adamantly resisted but suffered severe 
emotional convulsions. A couple of weeks after her arrest, she took 
an overdose of sleeping pills but friends rushed her to the hospital in 
time to save her life. This proved to be a temporary respite. The drug 
scandal exposed a mental fragility that sent her into an inexorable 
spiral of decline. 26 

Arnstein s troubled personality had deep roots in an unpleasant 
childhood. She had been born in 1940, along with her twin brother 
Eddie, into a comfortable Chicago family, but when she was ten 
her father died suddenly and the family was forced to move in with 
relatives. Although a bright student with a keen sense of humor, 
Bobbie did not take school seriously and became a rebellious, street- 
wise teenager with bleached blond hair who loved television and 
movies, drank a bit, and dated unpopular boys whom she found 
interesting. 27 

Once out of high school, Arnstein held a series of low-paying jobs 
before becoming a receptionist at Playboy in 1960. She took to her 
new environment and by 1962 had risen through the ranks to become 
Hefner s executive secretary. Arnstein grew close to her boss and they 
became lovers for a short time before settling into a deep friendship. 
She also became close friends with Cynthia Maddox, with the two 
women sharing an apartment for several months. 28 

Then disaster struck. Bobbie had fallen in love with Tom Lownes, 
Victor Lowness younger brother, a Harvard-educated journalist with 
literary talent and a warm personality who had joined Playboy as 
an editor after working for the Miami Herald and Show Business 
Illustrated. After dating for several months, they discussed marriage 
and in the summer of 1963 drove to Florida in Lowness Volkswagen 
to visit his mother. In southern Indiana, Arnstein took the wheel for 
a stretch, but at some point she lost control of the car and skidded off 
the road. While she was thrown from the vehicle in the wreck and 
suffered lacerations and a broken arm, Lownes was killed. Consumed 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


261 


by guilt, Amstein never drove again and told anyone who would listen 
that she had killed Lownes and wished she had died instead. When 
she returned to the mansion for a long convalescence, friends wor- 
ried about her state of mind and monitored her closely. She began 
drinking too much and attempted suicide once, but slowly seemed 
to regain her equilibrium. She eventually began dating again, but the 
relationships always remained casual. 29 

Arnstein found a creative outlet, however, as Hefners executive 
assistant. She had moved into the mansion in 1961 and had assumed a host 
of duties. She scheduled Hefners business meetings, communicated 
his editorial decisions to Playboy executives, shopped for his clothes 
and gifts, ran interference with his girlfriends, supervised garden- 
ers and technicians and secretaries at the domicile, regulated the 
guest list for movies and parties, handled his mail, and performed 
countless sundry tasks. Loyally protecting her boss’s privacy, she told 
callers, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Hefner does not receive telephone calls. 
He speaks on the phone only when he specifically originates calls 
himself.” She appeared often at his side, notepad in hand, ready to 
handle any situation. “It was clear that she was his link to the world. 
This was no ordinary secretarial relationship; she was more like an 
ambassador,” an observer described. 30 

Arnstein’s energetic, efficient presence matched the intense 
demands of her job. Small of stature, with shoulder-length auburn 
hair and a dazzling smile, she managed Hefner’s schedule with 
a combination of intelligence, quick wit, and impatience with 
pretense. Many friends considered her to be the funniest person 
they had ever known, and her repartee became legendary. She 
collected comedy albums and loved the dark, irreverent humor of 
Lenny Bruce, and later, Richard Pryor. While suspicious of most 
compliments, she glowed when a close friend, Shirley Hillman, 
once remarked that she was as funny as Bruce. Amstein occasionally 
would walk by Hillman and say with a laugh, “Tell me that Lenny 
Bruce line again.” 31 

Arnstein’s humor flashed out unpredictably. When a preoccupied 
waiter at an Indian restaurant asked, “Can I get you something, sir?” 
she immediately pulled up her sweater to expose her breasts and 
said, “Do I look like a guy to you?” The startled waiter regained his 
dignity and replied in his most proper manner, “No charge.” The 
group broke into laughter, and they received no bill for the meal. 



262 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Another time she composed a “Memo to New Bunny Mothers” that 
mercilessly mocked the rigid rules at the Playboy Clubs: 

Bunny Mothers and General Managers should not social- 
ize with Bunnies; Floor Managers and Bunnies should not 
socialize with General Managers; Bunny Mothers and Boom 
Directors can socialize with Floor Managers, but not with two 
or more General Managers present; Cooks and Busboys can’t 
socialize with anyone and neither can the hatcheck Bunny; 
Flugh M. Flefner, when present or absent, can or cannot 
socialize with anyone, depending on how he feels some of the 
time; the rest of the time he can do whatever he likes. You will 
come to love the freedom of your new job. 

She delighted in skewering self-important Playboy executives. When 
she saw one approaching, a favorite tactic had her engage Flefner in 
conversation about his sexual adventures in previous days, which she 
knew he liked to talk about. She would ask him question after ques- 
tion, seeming to hang on every word as the executive waited, fuming, 
in the next room. Then she would turn and make a face to a grinning 
audience of secretaries who had witnessed the performance . 32 

Amstein’s relationship with Flefner became the centerpiece of her 
life. She always carried a bit of a torch and idolized her boss even as she 
became aware of his faults. Close friends believed that Amstein’s pow- 
erful emotional ties to Flefner stemmed from her father’s early death 
and that she loved him, yearned for his approval, and resented his hold 
over her all at the same time. “She worshipped Fief,” explained one of 
these friends. “For the most part, he was daddy. Fie filled that place 
up in her that she needed in order to feel like a whole person .” 33 
Flumor and her skillful reading of his moods sustained their rela- 
tionship. Amstein and Flefner both possessed a keen wit, and their 
exchanges of quips and jibes became legendary around the mansion. 
“I thought she could give and take with him better than anyone Fve 
ever seen. And I think he enjoyed her company so much for that,” 
noted Karen Christy. When Flefner showed up at her desk to exult 
that he had finally convinced Barbi Benton to have sex with him, 
for instance, Arnstein replied, “Well, Fief, why don’t you rent the 
Goodyear Blimp and tell the world. I’m sure everyone will be just 
as thrilled as I am.” A laughing Flefner responded, “But you can’t 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


263 


talk that way to a man worth a hundred million dollars!” She did an 
uncanny imitation of an angry Hefner, and when the publisher was 
chewing someone out she loved to stand behind him and mimic his 
actions while the poor victim struggled not to laugh. At the same 
time, Arnstein excelled at reading her boss’s state of mind, shrewdly 
sensing when she should vanish, hang out with him, or maneuver 
him into a bout of serious work as she took notes and efficiently dealt 
with issues. Hefner deeply appreciated the talents of his right hand 
woman, once describing her as “the brightest, wittiest, most insight- 
ful, sensitive, insecure, caring, craziest, most contradictory female 
I’ve ever known. ... I loved her.” 34 

As all of Amstein’s friends came to realize, however, her bravado and 
wit masked a deeply troubled soul. In fact, she may have suffered from a 
manic-depressive disorder. In her teens, she had contemplated suicide 
and as an adult often sank into deep, black emotional holes and talked 
repeatedly about wanting to die. Friends observed her intense feel- 
ings of inadequacy, heartwrenching descriptions of life as unbearably 
painful, and witnessed expressions of self-hatred. They convinced her 
to see a psychiatrist — predictably, she began to do hilarious riffs on 
how worthless psychiatrists were — and worried when she began to rely 
increasingly on speed and sleeping pills to regulate her highs and lows. 
At least one suicide attempt in the late 1960s only exacerbated the 
concern. She was “a tragedy waiting to happen,” said Michelle Urry, a 
close friend. “She was so funny, and she could be so vulnerable. The 
vulnerability was terrifying sometimes when you saw it.” 35 

Arnstein’s emotional problems gradually became entangled with 
Hefner, the central presence in her life. She constantly sought his 
approval as a way to help bolster her identity and self-worth. Given 
his narcissistic bent, Hefner was ill-suited to provide such psychologi- 
cal reinforcement, but even if he had been it would have been insuf- 
ficient. “Nobody could have filled her up,” observed Urry. “Bobbie 
needed to do it for herself.” 36 

For all of her hero worship of Hefner, Arnstein also felt harried, 
frustrated, and occasionally unappreciated in her job. She complained 
about its pressures and talked about resigning. In 1973, she com- 
plained to Dick Rosenzweig about being underpaid and unacknowl- 
edged. She observed that while she loved Hefner, her sensitivity to his 
needs “is the very same thing that can cause such anxiety.” She com- 
plained that he was incredibly demanding and took her for granted. 37 



264 


MR. PLAYBOY 


By the early 1970s, Arnstein was acting more erratically. Mortified 
by weight she had put on her slight frame over the past few years, she 
checked into a facility in Texas for several weeks and dropped forty 
pounds. Exhilarated by her success, she returned to Chicago with a 
penchant for health food, gave up liquor and marijuana, and purchased 
a flashy new wardrobe of platform shoes, tight jeans, feathers, scarves, 
chains, and jewelry. She also began dating younger men on a regular 
basis and experimented with lesbianism, having at least one affair with 
a female coworker. At times she seemed on top of the world, ensconced 
in Hefner s inner circle in Chicago and a regular at the marathon game- 
playing sessions along with Shel Silverstein, Gene Siskel, John Dante, 
and Karen Christy. Other times the depressive episodes would intrude 
and she would return to her old reliance on drugs. 38 

Then Arnstein met someone who would send her life onto a crash 
course. Ronnie Scharf was a good-looking, charming young man 
seven years her junior who was also a small-time drug dealer. As 
her infatuation grew, so did her drug usage — cocaine, Quaaludes, 
Placidils, and eventually heroin. She strained to keep Scharf s atten- 
tion and he began spending many nights in her mansion quarters, 
where they would get high in the early morning hours. In 1971 came 
the fateful trip to Miami with her boyfriend and his roommate, Ira 
Sapstein. While she lounged by the pool and soaked up the tropical 
sunshine, Scharf and Sapstein purchased cocaine from a dealer and 
transported the drug back to Chicago. 39 

A subsequent chain of events sent her life spiraling downward — 
the initial contact from DEA agents in the fall of 1972, Scharf s and 
Sapsteins indictment at the end of the year, several months of inter- 
rogation and pressure, and Arnsteins own indictment and arrest in 
March 1974. As drug agents and prosecutors cajoled her to finger 
Hefner, she began to crack under the pressure and attempted suicide. 
She was despondent that she had drawn Hefner, the man she idol- 
ized, into great danger when he was completely innocent. Relentless 
prosecutors mocked her for “taking the fall” for her boss, denigrated 
her as a whore, and threatened a long jail sentence if she didn’t hand 
him over. U.S. Attorney James Thompson even called her into his 
office to say that he had received word that a contract had been put 
out on her life and that she should trust neither friend nor foe. The 
clear, if ludicrous, implication was that Hefner might have her killed. 
Arnstein s depression deepened and her drug use grew. 40 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


265 


Meanwhile, Hefner and Playboy were sucked deeper into the 
maw of the drug investigation. The Chicago Strike Force circled 
the publisher, looking for an opening. It sent girls to infiltrate the 
Playboy Mansion and spy on Hefner and his guests, and secured 
inside informants in Allan Crawford, the mansions security chief, 
and William Noel, the publishers personal valet. The DEA dug into 
Hefners procurement of Dexedrine, discovering an improper pro- 
cess involving a local pharmacy where amphetamine prescriptions 
were written for mansion employees and then delivered for the 
publisher s use. But this was small stuff. Despite what Hefner termed 
“the Inquisition,” the government uncovered no evidence connecting 
him to the procurement, use, or sale of hard drugs. 41 

On October 22, 1974, Bobbie Arnstein’s trial began. It was a 
disaster. Over several days government prosecutors implicated 
her in the Miami drug deal, with their star witness being George 
Mathews, the convicted narcotics dealer in Miami who now claimed 
that he had seen Arnstein put the cocaine in her purse to carry it to 
Chicago when she, Scharf, and Sapstein departed. This represented 
a change from his initial story, when he said that only Scharf and 
Sapstein were involved, and Mathews admitted that prosecutors 
had promised him a reduced jail term if he cooperated. Arnstein 
vehemently denied his testimony, and indeed, Mathews appeared 
to perjure himself in order to get his sentence reduced from fifteen 
years to three months. But her lawyers refused to let her testify, 
fearing that she would fall apart under cross-examination. They 
also rightly perceived that Arnstein would alienate a working-class 
Chicago jury with her wisecracking persona and expensive wardrobe 
of knee-length boots, flashy vests, and wild-print skirts and blouses. 
She acted self-destructively in the courtroom, passing notes and gig- 
gling with Scharf. Once, her close friend and attorney, Keith Stroup, 
became furious when he observed that one folded-up note actually 
contained a small pinch of drugs. The jury found both Scharf and 
Arnstein guilty of cocaine trafficking, and the judge sentenced the 
former to a six-year prison term. Incredibly, he handed Arnstein 
a provisional fifteen-year sentence that had a double purpose: it 
allowed for several weeks of psychiatric evaluation to be followed 
by a resentencing, and it gave prosecutors more time to pressure 
her to say that she was supplying Hefner as a way to save herself 
from the prison term she dreaded. 42 



266 


MR. PLAYBOY 


In the wake of Arnstein’s conviction, a torrent of bad publicity 
engulfed Playboy and its publisher. Front-page newspaper headlines 
blared that a broadening federal investigation was closing in on Hefner 
and had uncovered a drug link to a prominent Hollywood celebrity, 
who later proved to be Peter Lawford. Accompanying stories noted 
that Playboy employees had been subpoenaed to testify before a 
Chicago grand jury, and that a former security chief at the mansion 
claimed that marijuana and cocaine were regularly used at the Playboy 
Mansion. Then a state’s attorney decided to reopen an investigation 
into the death of former Bunny Adrienne Pollock, who had died in 
1973 from an overdose of alcohol and Quaaludes. Even though she 
had expired in her own apartment, a Cook County grand jury began 
to look into a possible link to drug use in the Playboy empire. 43 

Hefners troubles attracted national attention. The Los Angeles 
Times detailed his emergence as a “Drug Probe Target” while 
Newsweek probed “The Playboy Connection.” In the Village Voice , 
Alexander Cockburn asked, “Who’s After Hef ?” and noted that the 
Chicago Strike Force and the DEA seemed out to get Hefner, warn- 
ing that he would discover that “after all those years of parties and hos- 
pitality and of famous names in the guestbook, how few true friends 
he has.” Friendly observers in Chicago were reduced to grim jokes. 
“Anyone who wrote the 25-part, 200,000 word ‘Playboy Philosophy’ 
doesn’t need any drugs, he’s a one-man Nembutal factory,” quipped 
the columnist Bob Greene. “Reliable sources confirm that a platoon 
of Playboy’s top photo retouching artists have been on overtime, with 
orders to airbrush Hefner’s pipe out of all existing photographs.” 44 

A string of publicity blunders by Hefner and Playboy personnel 
exacerbated the situation. A few weeks before Arnstein’s trial, the pub- 
lisher hosted a fund-raiser for NORML (the National Organization 
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) while the police stopped the 
manager of the Playboy Club in Los Angeles for suspected drunk 
driving and found cocaine in his car. Then the executive secretary of 
the Playboy Foundation was arrested in Chicago for possession of a 
quarter pound of marijuana in her automobile trunk. Then, incred- 
ibly, the January 1975 issue of Playboy carried an article promising 
“The Truth About Cocaine.” It noted that “a blizzard of cocaine is 
blowing over us” as it “has spilled from the ghetto and the mansion 
to become the illegal drug of choice, second only to marijuana, of 
many prosperous middle-class Americans.” While the piece offered 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


267 


a dispassionate depiction of the attractions and dangers of cocaine, it 
seemed to spotlight Playboy as a symbol of the drug culture. 45 

Meanwhile, Arnstein, terrified by the prospect of a jail sentence 
and horrified at having dragged her beloved boss into a widening 
scandal, fell apart. Huddled in the Chicago mansion, she alternated 
between panic and depression. For his part, Hefner was caught in 
a bind. He had paid all her legal bills, refused to blame her, and 
offered personal encouragement whenever the opportunity arose. 
But with Playboy lawyers insisting that he keep a distance to protect 
himself, he offered no public statement on her behalf. Having moved 
to California, he encouraged her to come west and continue her regu- 
lar job but refused to let her live in the Playboy Mansion West. A pro- 
foundly depressed Arnstein plummeted emotionally. Friends worried 
that she was in “very, very bad shape” as she cried, talked of suicide, 
and repeated that she did not want to be an imposition on Hefner and 
the Playboy organization. 46 

Finally, Arnstein cracked. On the evening of January 11, 1975, 
she had dinner with Shirley and Richard Hillman at their apartment 
and seemed in reasonably calm spirits. She left their place late in the 
evening, took in a movie with a boyfriend, and then returned to 
the mansion. Gathering a few personal items, she then left in the early 
morning hours of January 12 and walked a few blocks to the Hotel 
Maryland on Rush Street, where she procured a room on the top 
floor, hung out a “Do Not Disturb” sign, and locked the door. The 
next afternoon, when the maid could not get in to clean the room, 
hotel managers broke the lock and entered to find Arnstein sprawled 
on the bed, dead. She had ingested a massive quantity of barbiturates. 
Authorities discovered an envelope propped up with one last wise- 
crack scrawled on the envelope: “Boring note of explanation within.” 
The long, rambling suicide note said, in part: 

It was I alone who acted and conceived of this act. ... I am 
innocent of the charges. Despite the perjured testimony of the 
government s “star” witness, I was never part of any conspiracy 
to transport or distribute the alleged drugs. ... I don’t sup- 
pose it matters that I say it, but Hugh M. Hefner is — though 
few will ever realize it — a staunchly upright, rigorously moral 
man — I know him well and he has never been involved in any 
criminal activity which is being attributed to him now. 47 



268 


MR. PLAYBOY 


When Hefner took a telephone call in Los Angeles and heard of 
Amstein’s suicide, he was stunned. But as the shock wore off, anger 
took its place and he dismissed advice from his attorneys that he sit 
tight and withhold comment. Instead, he instructed aides to schedule 
a news conference at the Chicago mansion for the following after- 
noon and to prepare the Big Bunny for a quick flight. He immediately 
began preparing a statement, writing in longhand on a yellow legal 
pad, and continued working through the night on the long flight to 
Chicago. A limousine took Hefner and his party directly to the man- 
sion, and after a quick bite of breakfast and more revision, he faced 
over one hundred reporters and a battery of microphones, television 
cameras, and flash bulbs at 1 p.m. on January 14. Disheveled and deeply 
distressed, struggling to contain his emotions as tears threatened to 
roll down his haggard face, Hefner struck back at a government he 
believed had crossed the line of legality and decency — a government 
so determined to get him that it had hounded a close friend into kill- 
ing herself. 48 

“Youll excuse me if I look a little harried,” he began hesitantly. 
“I’m quite upset.” But he gathered himself and launched an attack 
on what he described as “not a legitimate narcotics investigation 
at all but a politically motivated, anti-Playboy witch hunt.” He pas- 
sionately asserted his own innocence of any connection with hard 
drugs and condemned the governments relentless pressure on 
Bobbie Arnstein. He accused drug agents and the court of using 
an extremely harsh jail sentence “in an attempt to force Bobbie 
Arnstein to falsely incriminate me.” Asserting that “the enemies’ 
list mentality of Watergate” was alive and well in the government, 
he argued that the forces of “authoritarian repression” continued 
to threaten a free society. Arnstein was “one of the best, brightest, 
most worthwhile women I have ever known,” the publisher said, 
his voice breaking. “She will be missed by me and a great many 
others as well.” 49 

Hefner drew blood. In subsequent days, James Thompson tried 
to brush off his accusations, describing the publisher as “off the wall” 
and declaring, “I’m not sure that what Hefner stands for these days is 
all that relevant, or that any prosecution of him would mean much.” 
But a wave of sympathy slowly built for the Playboy publisher as a 
subject of government persecution. Supportive articles appeared in 
the Chicago Sun-Times and Washington Post , while both Newsweek 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


269 


and Time gave full vent to Hefners accusations. Most notably, the 
conservative columnist William S afire, writing in the New York Times, 
questioned the tactics of prosecutors in going after celebrities such as 
Hefner. Regarding Arnsteins fifteen-year jail term, he wrote, “What 
clearer invitation to perjury can there be than such a ‘provisional sen- 
tence’? It is one thing to give a cooperative witness a break, entirely 
another to threaten to let a defendant rot in the slammer until he or 
she tells the story the prosecution wants.” 50 

Over the next several months the drug case against Hefner col- 
lapsed completely. When the Chicago Strike Force sent its final 
report to Washington, it was obvious they had no real evidence 
against the Playboy publisher and the Justice Department did 
not move to prosecute. Meanwhile, the DEA came under attack 
for unethical, even illegal tactics and the attorney general in the 
new administration of President Gerald Ford launched an internal 
investigation of “possible mismanagement or corruption.” In May 
1975 the head of the DEA was asked to resign. Later in the summer 
James Thompson resigned as U.S. attorney to run for the governor- 
ship of Illinois, and his successor, Samuel K. Skinner, decided to 
drop the case. “No evidence of unlawful acquisition or distribution 
of cocaine or other hard drugs by Mr. Hefner, the corporation, or its 
employees has been adduced,” he said in a public statement accom- 
panying the conclusion of the inquiry. In a personal letter to Hefner, 
Skinner came close to an apology. “I am aware that the last year was 
not an easy one for you or your associates, and I truly wish it could 
have been avoided,” he wrote. “I have always felt that any investiga- 
tion should be conducted without any publicity whatsoever in order 
to protect the individuals involved.” 51 

So Hefner finally was vindicated in a drug case that seemed to 
have been driven mainly by an anti -Playboy political agenda. But 
much damage had been done. Most disturbingly, a young woman lay 
dead. The Playboy image also had been sullied as, in a sense, Hefner 
won a Pyrrhic victory. While he was exonerated from any personal 
involvement in drug trafficking, his name had been blackened for 
the better part of two years by media stories depicting his lifestyle 
as a hotbed of drug use and depravity. Such images created serious, 
lasting damage. They fed a growing concern in Middle America that 
a climate of permissiveness had created moral dry rot in the structure 
of American values. The Illinois electorate, significantly, chose Jim 



270 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Thompson as governor in 1976 with 65 percent of the vote and then 
reelected him for three additional terms. 

Hefners ordeal in the drug scandal was accompanied by mount- 
ing financial problems in his company by the mid-1970s. Early in the 
decade, Playboy Enterprises Inc.’s profit potential seemed almost lim- 
itless. In 1972, a long, glowing piece in the New York Times described 
it as a “manifold leisure time’ industry which sprawls voluptuously 
across the game board of American life.” It compared Hefner’s opera- 
tion to the Disney entertainment empire and pointed to several new 
foreign-language editions of Playboy, a new magazine titled Oui, 
seventeen Playboy Clubs, three gambling casinos, four large resort 
hotels, two movie theaters, a book division, a film division, a record 
company, modeling and limousine agencies, and dozens of merchan- 
dise items emblazoned with the bunny logo. Forbes magazine agreed, 
noting that Hefner had gone “far beyond selling entertaining fanta- 
sies as an escape from life’s cares; now Playboy wants to sell its fantasy 
as a way of life.” 52 

At the same time, financial trouble loomed on the horizon. Caught 
up in the company’s growth and eager to create a multifaceted enter- 
tainment empire, Hefner and his lieutenants had indulged in over- 
expansion. They failed to create a suitable management structure for 
their far-flung endeavors and by the mid-1970s stresses and strains 
were becoming evident. The magazine continued to turn a profit, 
but many Playboy Clubs had begun losing money — the British clubs, 
because of gambling revenue, were an exception — while hotel and 
resort ventures were floundering. The Great Gorge resort in New 
Jersey, for instance, which opened in 1972, was a disaster from the 
beginning. This giant luxury hotel of over six hundred rooms cost PEI 
over $30 million to build, and it never came close to the 60 percent 
occupancy it required to break even. Playboy’s movie projects also 
fizzled. Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth enjoyed critical success but 
generated little box-office appeal, while the company’s follow-up, The 
Naked Ape, flopped both artistically and financially. 53 

PEI’s problems could be seen in its volatile stock prices. The com- 
pany had gone public in late 1971 with an initial burst of enthusi- 
asm, but over the next few years the value of its shares fell sharply. 
Fallout from the drug scandal contributed to the negative mood, as 
two members of the company’s board of directors resigned to avoid 
staining their reputation while some advertisers backed away from 



DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 


271 


commitments to the magazine. In 1974, PEI’s two-decade anniversary, 
the respected business journal Duns Review offered a grim conclu- 
sion: “On recent performance, the record of Playboy at twenty seems 
one of careless squandering that promises a dismal future.” 54 

Part of the problem was Hefner himself. Increasingly bored with 
financial aspects of his enterprise, he had withdrawn from corporate 
affairs throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. While formulating 
broad goals for PEI, he had turned over the empire to associates to 
run. “I’m out here playing backgammon. I don’t want to hear from 
anybody,” he admitted later. But lacking a strong hand at the helm, 
the company had begun to meander off course as it proceeded on 
its corporate journey. Criticism of Hefner’s absentee status began 
mounting as business experts decried the publisher as being “far 
removed from the business side of his empire.” Some PEI execu- 
tives concurred. Robert Gutwillig, a vice president for marketing who 
was helping run the company, wrote a blistering 1974 memo that 
described Hefner as “a chief executive with a whim of iron, disregard 
for the welfare of the company, contempt for his employees, and a 
lifestyle second only to Louis the Sun King.” At the height of the 
drug scandal, Gutwillig and Robert Preuss, president of PEI, even 
took the extraordinary step of asking Hefner to step down until the 
investigation was complete. In early 1975, Hefner finally was forced 
to act, establishing a temporary Office of the President, overseen by 
himself and composed of six executives, to run PEI while a search 
was launched to secure an experienced business figure to become 
president and COO. 55 

Thus the first half of the 1970s saw Hefner facing romantic tur- 
moil, drug scandal, and financial difficulties in his company. But like 
much of America, he stepped back from public problems and turned 
inward to concentrate on his personal life. During these same years 
he had created a new private refuge far from the Midwest where he 
had grown up and launched his career. Success had created fresh 
wishes for self-fulfillment, and California now presented a rich new 
environment in which to realize them. There Hefner would nourish 
the most elaborate, heretical fantasies that he could concoct. 



14 


Disneyland for Adults 


I n mid-June 1972, the Rolling Stones interrupted their North 
I American tour for a brief layover at the Playboy Mansion. Even by 
I the jaded standards of Mr. Playboys abode, it was an impressive 
performance as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and friends engaged 
in a nonstop, four-day orgy of sex, drugs, and partying. A string 
of incidents soon became legend: Jagger flipping up his bathrobe at 
poolside and replying “Have at it, luv,” to a lustful girl who had just 
blurted out, “I want to bite your ass”; Richards at the center of an 
orgy under the dining room table; a bacchanalia in Hefners huge 
Roman bath. When the band stumbled off to its next concert dates, 
Mary O’Connor, one of Hefner’s key assistants, assessed the damage 
in a long memo: a heap of irretrievably burned towels, bedsheets, 
and rugs; chairs, couches, and bedspreads stained to ruination; bath- 
room fixtures knocked askew and drapes pulled down and destroyed; 
plumbing so blocked in one room that plumbers had to cut into the 
walls to clear the pipes. Rut the publisher shrugged off the carnage. 
Proud of his friendship with the band, he put up a framed poster 
inscribed “To Hugh Hefner, for his warm hospitality — from Mick 
Jagger and the Stones.” 1 


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Such incidents typified the revelry of Hefner s life at the mansion, 
but he had grown restless in Chicago. The shooting of his television 
show, Playboy After Dark, took him to Los Angeles for frequent stints 
and his developing relationship with Barbi Benton kept him there. 
Then Bobbie Amsteins suicide, along with his breakup with Karen 
Christy, further loosened ties to the Windy City. But most impor- 
tantly, the allure of Hollywood proved irresistible. He purchased an 
estate near Sunset Boulevard to house him during the long West 
Coast stays and increasingly gravitated to the sunny, starstruck climate 
of Southern California. By 1975, he was living there permanently 
and the Chicago mansion, shuttered with a skeleton staff, gradually 
became a relic of his past. 

The Playboy Mansion West, with its stately manor house and beau- 
tiful grounds, became Hefner’s new personal paradise, a Shangri-La 
where he and a steady group of friends cavorted in what he termed 
a “Disneyland for adults.” For the publisher, this new atmosphere 
represented a psychological as well as a geographical shift. “California 
is the avant garde of everything that is happening in this country,” 
he said. As the new center of Hefner s world, the residence became 
more than a home. It served as a kind of social and cultural green- 
house for the cultivation of his reputation. Embracing private pursuits 
with even greater zeal, Hefner threw himself into group sex with a 
coterie of female friends and marathon game-playing sessions with an 
informal fraternity of male friends. Facing an American public land- 
scape marked by Watergate-era political cynicism, economic reces- 
sion, and weariness with social crusades, the publisher retreated into 
his private realm and played even harder. Like many Americans in 
this era, Hefner turned inward after the public storms and stresses 
of the 1960s. 2 


I 

Early in the new decade, Hefner made a decision that changed his 
life. Tired of staying in his apartment during frequent sojourns in Los 
Angeles to tape his television show in the late 1960s, he decided to 
buy a house. In late 1970, Barbi Benton found an unusual estate that 
immediately captured his imagination — a thirty-room mansion on six 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


acres in the heart of Holmby Hills, an exclusive residential area of Los 
Angeles, and only a block off the fabled Sunset Boulevard. Originally 
built in the 1920s for the family of Arthur Letts, the founder of 
Broadway department stores, it now was unoccupied, having been 
used for several years by the city as a hospitality center for visiting 
dignitaries. Hefner visited the estate with Benton, and immediately 
fell in love with it. He purchased it on February 3, 1971, for the price 
of $1,050,000. 

The house and its grounds offered several attractions to the 
Playboy publisher. He was struck immediately by the beautiful 
marble panel on the hillside just inside the main gate, with its apt 
depiction of Aurora, the Boman goddess of dawn, leading a group 
of beautiful young women into a new day. The Tudor Gothic man- 
sion sitting atop the hill featured a facade of gray granite adorned 
with towers, crenellations, and bay windows with leaded glass. The 
hand-carved oak door opened into a two-story great hall flanked by 
ornate dining rooms on one side and a large living room with fireplace 
and library on the other. A curved double staircase led to the second 
floor, where a huge master bedroom suite occupied one end, while a 
string of smaller bedrooms swept the length of the mansion. At the 
far end of the structure another wing of rooms bent at a right angle 
to form an L shape. One of Hefners favorite features was a secret 
panel that led down to a hidden wine cellar, an architectural compo- 
nent reflecting the fact that the house had been built in 1927 during 
Prohibition. 3 

Surrounding the mansion were six acres of land with a greenhouse, 
gamehouse, guesthouse, sweeping lawns in front and back, and the 
largest stand of redwoods in Southern California. Almost immediately, 
however, Hefner decided to extensively renovate the grounds to cre- 
ate a personal fantasy setting. He wanted a swimming pool and tennis 
court, but also sought to create “a veritable Eden with waterfalls, fish 
ponds, and a variety of birds and animals running free,” as he put it. 
Bon Dirsmith, a landscape architect who brought Hefner s vision to 
life, created a hill at the rear perimeter of the backyard to hide the 
adjoining property and placed in front of it a complex of waterfalls, 
streams, koi pond, and meandering swimming pool, all seemingly 
connected. The pool enclosed a rock grotto, while surrounding it 
was a tiered flagstone patio with a bar and a bathhouse built of natu- 
ral stone. Everything in Dirsmiths design reflected Hefners desire 



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to maintain a natural landscape and create what he called “a little 
piece of paradise.” The effect was heightened by the addition of a 
menagerie of flamingos, peacocks, African cranes, macaws, monkeys, 
rabbits, llamas, and dogs, most of which wandered freely among the 
lawns and trees. 4 

Hefner also ordered a redecoration of the house to create “the 
ultimate baronial bachelors pad.” He erased any feminine details 
he found. He replaced the original French crystal chandelier in the 
great hall, for instance, with a masculine bronze one and enlarged 
the master bedroom, adding walnut paneling and a beamed ceiling. 
A new, hand-carved circular stairway led up to an attic office that 
was also wood-paneled. Nude female figures were incorporated into 
a carved stone fireplace and an enormous bed, surrounded by movie 
and television screens and electronic gadgetry, became the center- 
piece of the room. 5 

Hefner forged a strong emotional identification with his new 
abode. The man who avoided sunlight in Chicago now “became 
entranced with the beautiful azaleas, rhododendrons, and the ferns 
and marvelous pines and the various plants that were out there,” 
reported Dirsmith. Determined to maintain a natural, organic 
ethos on the grounds, Hefner and Dirsmith modeled the grotto on 
prehistoric caves in France, embedding in the glass ceiling panels 
designs of prehistoric objects and insects trapped in amber. The 
publisher demanded paths, walkways, and isolated niches through- 
out the property to encourage an atmosphere of intimacy for his 
friends. The final result delighted him. “This property seemed to have 
been meant for me,” Hefner said later. “A new Playboy Mansion for 
a new decade, interconnected to nature as the Chicago Mansion had 
never been.” 6 

The public opening of the Playboy Mansion West came on 
November 20, 1971, at a benefit fund-raiser for the ACLU. Studded 
with celebrities such as Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn, Beverly Sills, 
Walter Matthau, Angie Dickinson, Bichard Widmark, Yul Brynner, 
George McGovern, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the event prompted 
a Los Angeles Times reporter to complain, “You could get a pain in 
the neck from all the head swiveling.” But such large-scale social 
events soon caused disgruntlement among Hefners new neighbors. 
In 1972 they drew up a list of complaints — loud music, walkie-talkie 
noise at all hours, late-night use of the tennis court, large numbers of 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


parked cars clogging the streets, nude young women standing atop the 
backyard hill disrupting golfers on the adjacent course — and hired an 
attorney to negotiate with the publisher prior to taking legal action. 
Hefner declared his intention to be a good neighbor and agreed to 
modify the offensive practices. 7 

As the mansion got up and running, unaccustomed problems 
tormented the staff. Not long after it opened, for instance, Hefners 
troop of squirrel monkeys created an uproar. Following tr a ining 
advice from experts at the San Diego Zoo, groundskeepers initially 
kept them on long ropes and fed them at regular times at the base of 
a huge redwood in the backyard. After several weeks, they released 
them and the monkeys hung around in anticipation of the feeding. 
But then the simian brigade, perched high in the redwood branches, 
alertly observed a huge buffet table being set out in a neighbor s yard 
for a wedding. A furious phone call informed mansion personnel that 
some two dozen hairy raiders had come swinging out of the trees and 
were eating everything in sight, and a posse of gardeners, butlers, 
security people, electricians, and carpenters went charging down the 
hill to retrieve the miscreants. Fortunately, Hefner s large kitchen was 
able to replace the pilfered food, but the monkeys were put in giant 
enclosures thereafter. 8 

Despite such mishaps, nearly all visitors to the Playboy Mansion 
West saw it as a fantasy come to life. A jaded reporter for the Los 
Angeles Herald Examiner, who had seen many beautiful residences in 
Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, admitted that “seldom do you see anyone 
short of the aristocracy living in such baronial splendor.” Anthony 
Haden-Guest, in a 1973 article for Rolling Stone, described 

a mullioned slab of Old Englishry, a gray gleam of ersatz 
granite in the Southern California sunlight. To the back the 
image dissolves, re-forms. Sexy vicarage metamorphoses to 
miniature Versailles. Gibbons swing and chatter in the trees 
while a couple of house guests foozle with croquet hoops; a 
quintet of East African cranes lope up a handmade hill and an 
associate movie-producer hopefully pursues a trio of cuties. 
Mottled Japanese carp float on one side of a bridge, and on 
the other, in the bathing pool, another cutie, with the left 
cheek of her bikini bottom cut into a heart shape, floats on an 
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The actor Peter O’Toole, after strolling the grounds with Hefner, 
Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward, offered a snappier summary: 
“This is the way God would have done it if he had the money.” 9 

Hefner adored his new residence. While savoring its sheer physi- 
cal beauty, he also imagined it radiating a mystique that was equal 
parts erotic freedom, material affluence, and old Hollywood glamour. 
The publisher saw it not only as a haven for pleasure, but as his ticket 
into the movie-star community that he had idolized since childhood. 
He planned for his new abode, with its spacious grounds and sumptu- 
ous manor house, to become a site for recapturing some of the charm 
and allure associated with the golden age of American filmmaking. 
Indeed, as Hefner threw lavish parties and cultivated the celebrities 
of the silver screen, he became a Hollywood fixture. 10 

Profoundly satisfied with his new California dwelling, he once 
answered a query about vacations by saying, “I go from the house 
to the Jacuzzi.” In 1975 he lovingly shepherded into the pages of 
Playboy a long article titled “Playboy Mansion West.” Describing 
the property as a “new paradise by the Pacific, a contemporary 
Shangri-La for work and play,” it took the reader on an extended, 
step-by-step tour through the house and grounds. Replete with 
evocative prose and dozens of lush photographs, it reflected Hefner’s 
emotional blueprint for his new home. The article stressed its atmo- 
sphere of liberation and fantasy, and its “ethereal, dreamlike quality.” 
It described Hefner’s circle of friends, “a free-form floating family — 
maybe 30 or 40 regulars, who come and go, group and regroup in 
ever-changing combinations” — as they made the residence “a sec- 
ond home.” It pointed out Hefner’s new affinity for nature, sunshine, 
and daytime working hours, joking that “Hef discovered he couldn’t 
do a thing about the ridiculous hours the sun kept so he decided 
to meet it halfway.” In both pictures and prose, it illuminated the 
mansion’s attraction for movie stars and entertainers by noting 
the presence of figures such as Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, 
Raquel Welch, Tony Curtis, Jim Rrown, Jack Nicholson, Groucho 
Marx, James Caan, Clint Eastwood, and many others. Finally, of 
course, the article rounded out Hefner’s vision of the mansion by 
depicting the beautiful, unclad, and uninhibited young women who 
pervaded the property. Visitors to the Playboy Mansion West, it con- 
cluded, “have nothing to do but relax and enjoy the wonders of this 
Disneyland for adults.” 11 



278 


MR. PLAYBOY 


In fact, the Playboy publisher hosted innumerable gaudy social 
events at the mansion throughout the 1970s. Hefners longtime love 
of boxing led to elaborate “Fight Night” parties for bouts such as the 
1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman contest in Zaire (where Ali 
thrilled Hefner by saying hello on the air), and the “Thrilla in Manila” 
contest between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975. Hefners birthday also 
provided the occasion for yearly parties. One of the most notable 
came on his fiftieth in 1976, when his friends put together a sur- 
prise roast where a group of comedians and close friends made fun of 
the publisher before a large crowd. Two years later, Hefners birthday 
prompted the “Schlong Show,” a bawdy send-up of Chuck Barris’s 
television hit, The Gong Show. A number of mansion regulars sang, 
danced, told jokes, and entertained as a panel composed of Hefner, 
Peter Lawford, and comedian Alan Kent awarded points and rang the 
gong on particularly awful acts. On his fifty-fifth birthday, in an elabo- 
rate set in the backyard, friends presented the Calamity Awards, a 
satire on the Academy Awards that focused on the foibles of mansion 
insiders. Roman Polanski, for example, received the “Outstanding 
Achievement in Box Office Disasters Award” for a recent movie. The 
director had fled the country because of a scandal involving an under 
age girl, so his award was accepted by James Caan’s eleven-year-old 
daughter, who walked up to the microphone and brought the house down 
with this line: “I’m sorry, my husband couldn’t make it tonight.” 12 
A long string of parties and social events shaped the regular cal- 
endar of life at Hefner’s mansion. New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, 
Halloween, and the announcement of the Playmate of the Year 
became standard fare while a pajama soiree, the Midsummer Night’s 
Dream Party, became a particular favorite of many mansion regu- 
lars. Hefner was especially thrilled by the Playmate Reunion, on the 
twenty-fifth anniversary of the magazine’s founding, when 136 former 
Playmate centerfolds gathered at the California mansion for a week- 
end celebration in September 1979. Weekly movie nights, attended 
by several dozen guests, filled out the mansion’s social schedule, as 
did numerous fund-raising events for charities. Hefner had special 
enthusiasm for a gathering in the summer of 1978 to restore the 
famous Hollywood sign that sat in the hills north of Los Angeles, 
which he described as “Hollywood’s Eiffel Tower.” 13 

As its mystique spread, the Playboy Mansion West became 
the setting for several ABC -TV specials focusing on Hefner and the 



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Playboy lifestyle. In April 1977, for instance, ABC televised Playboys 
Playmate Party , hosted by the comedian Dick Martin and featuring 
appearances by Bill Cosby, Bobert Culp, James Caan, and Arnold 
Schwarzenegger as well as Hefner and an assortment of Playmates. 
Two years later, in November 1979, Bichard Dawson hosted The 
Playboy Roller Disco and Pajama Party on ABC. With musical enter- 
tainment provided by Chuck Mangione and the Village People, most 
of the activity focused on Hefner and several dozen skimpily clad 
Playmates roller skating to disco music on the tennis courts, dancing 
in the mansion s great hall, and lounging by the swimming pool and 
grotto. Such shows drew high ratings, but many critics found them to 
be little more than extended commercials for Hefner and Playboy . 14 

The mansion also hosted many political events that reflected its 
owners attraction to liberal causes. In the spring of 1976, he hosted a 
fund-raiser for California governor Jerry Brown during his race for 
the presidency in the Democratic primaries . The following year he did 
the same for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who swept to a reelec- 
tion victory. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana 
Laws (NORML) also continued to attract Hefners support with sev- 
eral fund-raisers while the publisher received NAACP Image Awards 
in the latter 1970s. In 1978, a Playboy Foundation gathering in behalf 
of the Equal Rights Amendment brought in thousands of dollars and 
featured Dr. Benjamin Spock as the guest of honor. 15 

Thus a public image began to take shape of the Playboy Mansion 
West as a gathering place for Hollywood’s beautiful people and a pri- 
vate playground for the Playboy publisher, his friends, and a legion of 
beautiful female companions. But the popular impression of Hefners 
hedonistic Eden in Southern California, no matter how extravagant, 
could not match what actually happened behind its walls. In real life, 
Mr. Playboy enjoyed a private realm of sensual indulgence and exu- 
berant play in the 1970s that dwarfed anything he had experienced in 
earlier years. It would have boggled the imagination of his public. 


II 


The December 1977 issue of Playboy featured “Playboys Playmate 
House Party,” which described the beguiling “party after the party” 
following a recent ABC television show. It followed seven Playmates 



280 


MR. PLAYBOY 


as they cavorted about the mansion grounds, often in the nude, 
having pillow fights, sunbathing, relaxing in the sauna, shooting pool, 
and finally joining Hefner to enjoy a lobster and wine buffet. But 
then came the piece de resistance — a “champagne celebration” in the 
grotto Jacuzzi where the publisher and the naked females relaxed in 
the bubbling waters, casually intertwined with chilled champagne at 
hand. The article described this scene as “a perfect candlelit capper 
to what has been a vintage day for Hef and the girls.” With broad 
winks to the reader, the article hinted at what had become a reality: 
Hefner had emerged at the center of a group-sex scene. 16 

The editor had slept with a host of women over the last two 
decades, of course, and often concurrently, but seldom together. In 
the case of his “serious” girlfriends, they never shared his bed with 
other females. Now, however, group-sex scenes became the norm at 
his West Coast Shangri-La. At the same time, Hefner intensified his 
long interest in game playing — card games, board games, pinball and 
video games — into a passion. The new mansion became, in his words, 
“both a swingers paradise and a sanctuary” where fun and games, 
quite literally, became the stuff of his life. Later, he described this 
period as “part of the ‘if that’s all there is, then let’s keep on dancing’ 
attitude that took hold after Bobbie Arnstein’s death.” During this 
escapist interlude, “I was celebrating my survival, if nothing else.” 17 

The unrestrained sexual atmosphere at the 1970s mansion 
quickly achieved legendary status among those privy to its daily 
life. By about 1973, Barbi Benton was absent for long stretches 
doing television spots or touring with her band, and “there were 
plenty of Playmates and Bunnies eager to fill my time,” Hefner 
noted later. An atmosphere of sexual abandon began to envelop the 
mansion grounds as notorious lotharios such as Warren Beatty, Jack 
Nicholson, and James Caan were regular visitors along with a con- 
stant stream of Playmates, ambitious models, and aspiring actresses. 
Unending seductions and uninhibited sex became the normal order 
of things. Beatty, for example, was notorious for his sexual conquests. 
According to an observer, the stunningly handsome, soft-voiced 
movie star would simply approach a young woman, shake her hand, 
and quietly say, “Hi, I’m Warren,” at which point she would melt. 
The filmmaker Michael Trikilis once was having sex with a beautiful 
young woman in one of the gamehouse bedrooms when the door sud- 
denly opened and Hefner stood there. Trikilis froze, fearing that the 



DISNEYLAND FOR ADULTS 281 

publisher might be angry, but he calmly walked by, patted him on the 
butt, and said, “Hi, Mikey.” “Couples could be found coupling on 
the Mansion grounds at almost any time of the day or night,” Hefner 
described. “It was an Eden that prompted pleasure seekers to leave 
their inhibitions at the gate.” 18 

The grotto became the erotic shrine at the center of this pleasure 
temple. Its sensual atmosphere presented both an outdoor feeling of 
nature and an intimate feeling of cavelike seclusion. With soothing 
jets of water, an array of overstuffed cushions scattered about, soft 
candlelight, and piped-in music — all hidden behind a waterfall mask- 
ing the entrance to the larger pool outside — the grotto appeared like 
a set from a romantic movie. Guests responded to the allure of this 
magical spot, and it was not unusual in the 1970s to see people making 
love there in various combinations at all hours. 19 

But the real erotic energy at the mansion radiated from Hefner 
and a bevy of young women who established a highly unconven- 
tional relationship throughout the late 1970s. The “Mansion Misses,” 
as he termed them, became his regular sexual partners in group 
scenes occurring occasionally in the grotto but most often upstairs 
in his master bedroom. This steady group of young women included 
Hope Olson, Patti McGuire, Marilou York, Marcy Hanson, Daina 
House, Susan Kiger, Alison Reynolds, Debbie Svensk Jensen, and 
Monique St. Pierre. Hefner felt excited and liberated by a situation 
where “instead of having to choose one girl over another on any given 
evening, I simply chose them all — and the more the merrier.” 20 

His consorts agreed. The Mansion Misses saw the group sex as 
an exciting erotic adventure that freed them from traditional moral 
restraints. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to act out the 
fantasies we all have,” explained Svensk. Marcy Hanson described 
it as “a dream world” where participants “could just have fun and 
experience everything without any rules to follow,” where they 
had “the freedom to express ourselves in every way that felt good to 
us, without being labeled evil or promiscuous.” 21 

Monique St. Pierre was especially eloquent on this point. Upon 
joining Hefner and several girls in his bed for the first time, she was 
overwhelmed: 


I remember holding hands . . . and one another. And gradually 
the warmth grew and grew into a tremendous sexual energy 



282 


MR. PLAYBOY 


that finally swept us along faster and faster, and finally over the 
edge. I didn’t even know what I was doing, I wasn’t even aware 
of myself as being separate from the others. ... It was the most 
amazing sex I’ve ever had. But the most amazing thing about it 
was that it wasn’t really about sex. It was about life. 

St. Pierre experienced a kind of euphoria where she “felt so free 
to let down every guard that you had ever learned in your entire 
life. Nothing seemed wrong.” It made her feel intensely alive and 
she described a kind of spiritual experience — ”a feast, a festival, an 
adventure, an awakening. It transformed me.” 22 

The female participants in this unusual erotic arrangement expe- 
rienced a special bonding that created intimate relationships and 
blunted jealousies. With no strings attached to this experiment 
in physical pleasure, they became close friends and enjoyed one 
another’s company with no one having a special claim on Hefner. 
Several of them described it as “a big happy family” or a “big happy 
sorority” where the ultimate agenda was to break the rules and have 
fun. “We were such good friends with each other that we were just 
showing our love for one another, not in a lesbian way at all, but just in 
that we cared so much for each other and for Hef,” explained Alison 
Reynolds. “We all became really close friends up there in Hef’s bed- 
room.” In fact, the friendships were so strong that they would go on 
to last for decades thereafter. 23 

But Hefner did not limit himself to the Mansion Misses. 
Throughout the late 1970s he regularly engaged in sporadic sexual 
encounters with a variety of “Personal Playmates,” as he liked to call 
them. This group consisted of women he dated seriously for a short time, 
such as Lillian Mueller, the sultry Norwegian beauty who became the 
1976 Playmate of the Year. It included a number of young women who 
posed for Playboy — Ashley Cox, Nikki Thomas, Janice Pennington, 
Christie Maddox, Michelle Drake, Gig Gangel, Sivi Aberg, among 
them. It contained others who were simply attracted to the sexual 
excitement of the mansion, such as a beautiful University of Michigan 
undergraduate who sought out Hefner as a kind of fantasy fulfill- 
ment and spent several sensual weekends with him at the mansion. 
Moreover, the publisher sporadically engaged in “swinging” sessions 
that included his favorite girlfriend of the moment along with cou- 
ples such as Orson and Denise Mozes. As Hefner observed, after 



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breaking up with Barbi Benton he devoted himself “to a far more 
open lifestyle, not to any one person, but to many. There were too 
many delicious possibilities for me to contemplate limiting myself to 
only one or two.” 24 

Throughout this uninhibited period, however, Hefner did main- 
tain a serious romantic relationship of sorts. In the fall of 1976, just 
after the final departure of Benton, he met a shy, nineteen-year-old 
blonde from a very traditional background. Sondra Theodore had 
been born and raised in San Bernardino, where she had been in the 
Girl Scouts, taught Sunday school, and acted in local theater produc- 
tions. After a year in college she had moved to Los Angeles to pursue 
an acting career when she accompanied a girlfriend to a party at the 
Playboy Mansion. Awkward and nervous, she was quietly nursing a 
drink at the bar when Hefner appeared and put her at ease with his 
calm, joking manner. After a tour of the grounds, they played pinball 
for a time and then danced to a slow, romantic song. Then the pub- 
lisher left her to attend to his other guests but promised to return. He 
did, saying, “Well, IVe looked the whole party over and can’t think of 
anyone I’d rather spend the rest of the evening with.” Swept off her 
feet, Theodore spent the night with Hefner and over the next several 
weeks began a romantic relationship that would last for five years. 25 

Theodore became a fixture at the mansion. Hopelessly in love 
with Hefner, the vivacious young woman attended to his wants and 
needs in every way possible. She developed an interest in old movies 
and big band music, faithfully accompanied him to social gather- 
ings and public appearances, and played his favorite tunes on the 
big Steinway piano in the living room. She gushed about her boy- 
friend to the press, recounting that he had “such a boyish charm 
you just want to cuddle him up and love him. He’s witty, he’s funny, 
he guides you, takes care of you, yet he’s the keeper of his house.” 
Hefner responded to her sweet, romantic nature, describing her as 
a “fresh faced, wholesome, gawky kid with a tomboyish charm that 
captured my heart — that made me feel like a boy again.” He bought 
her an expensive necklace that spelled out “Baby Blue” in diamonds, 
after the Barry White song of the same name that they had danced 
to that first evening. He also chose her as Playboy ’ s Playmate of the 
Month in July 1977. 26 

But Hefner had no intention of giving up the other women in his 
life. “I was really committed to non-commitment,” he said, and while 



284 


MR. PLAYBOY 


he cared for Theodore, it was not deep enough to create a serious, 
long-term love affair. “She was a special girl, but not the only girl,” 
Hefner noted bluntly. The publisher had no intention of commit- 
ting one-on-one to anybody, and it reflected his desire to avoid the 
burden of obligation that went with a steady, exclusive girlfriend. 
“It was the same kind of thing that you get with marriage. Then you 
have to make decisions not simply on the basis of what you want to 
do, but what you’re expected to do,” he explained. “I don’t think 
I was avoiding emotional involvement, but I was avoiding some of 
the responsibilities of a one-on-one relationship .” 27 

Theodore tried to take this in stride, accepting Hefner on his own 
terms and overlooking his dalliances with other women. But it was 
not easy. She told others — and obviously, herself — that she knew 
what she was getting into and that sex with many women was part 
of his lifestyle, his very identity. “I love him too much to throw it out 
the window over a silly thing like him seeing another girl once in a 
while,” she told a newspaper interviewer. “The others are just adven- 
tures.” At the same time, she yearned for a deeper, more permanent 
relationship. “If he were to ask me to marry him tomorrow, I’d do 
it,” she admitted publicly. Thus she found herself caught between 
conflicting desires — to be happy or to make Hefner happy. “I shed a 
lot of tears, and it was very painful at times,” she admitted, but she 
gamely acknowledged a basic fact: “I knew I wasn’t going to change 
him, so if I was going to love a man like him, I had to accept what 
he was all about .” 28 

Theodore also struggled to be accepted by the other females in 
Hefner’s bedroom coterie. Initially, they saw her as an interloper who 
was conniving to have the publisher all to herself. They played mean 
tricks on her and froze her out at every opportunity. But Theodore 
persisted, constantly telling the others that “if we love him we will try 
to make him happy, and he likes harmony.” She soon won them over 
and became a full-fledged member of the sorority. In fact, so complete 
was her devotion to Hefner that she began to set up group sexual 
activities to please him. According to another member of the sorority, 
“She would almost be his little gofer. He would want to get someone, 
and she would get the girl into the scene .” 29 

Eventually, however, the strain of sharing Hefner began to 
wear on Theodore. With the man she adored sleeping with many 
other women, often in her presence, the jealousy and pain began 



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to build up. His relationship with Heather Waite, a gorgeous blond 
beauty queen, became especially distressing from 1978 to 1980 
as the two women took turns, with one being at the mansion on 
certain days and the remaining days reserved for the other. Theodore s 
crying spells became more frequent, as did her arguments with 
Hefner, and she gradually began to dull her bubbly personality with 
alcohol and drugs. She had maintained her own apartment since dat- 
ing Hefner, and increasingly she went there to escape. Her close 
friends in the sorority grew worried as she numbed her pain chemi- 
cally. Theodore admitted that “the lifestyle started to take a bit of 
a toll on me,” and when they finally broke up in 1980 “it was very 
difficult on me, very difficult. And I had a lot of anger and I felt 
betrayed.” 30 

Despite such emotional complications, Hefner radiated a vibrant, 
magnetic sexual vitality throughout the last half of the 1970s that 
seemed to overwhelm all problems. He appeared as a man with an 
insatiable appetite for sex and little respect for erotic boundaries. At 
the same time, his physical intensity was accompanied by a gentle, 
romantic quality that made sex more than just physical pleasure. “Hef 
was the catalyst, he was the power source of all that energy. He was 
exuding it, generating it, building it, orchestrating it,” Monique 
St. Pierre recounted. “He was incredibly gentle and loving, but also 
incredibly wild.” Marcy Hanson described him as “like a little boy 
under a Christmas tree when it came to sex — so playful and adven- 
turesome, so enthused by every new creative thing you came up with 
in bed.” 31 

Hefners sexual passions occasionally produced curious situations. 
His love of slathering baby oil on his girlfriends during lovemaking 
would create problems for them in removing the sticky mess in their 
hair the next day. During a raucous lovemaking session with Sondra 
Theodore, he accidentally swallowed one of her “Benwa Balls,” a 
sexual toy that consisted of two metal balls inserted inside a woman 
to enhance her physical sensations. He fell back on the bed, choking 
and unable to breathe, and was about to lose consciousness when she 
squeezed his chest and finally dislodged the sphere. The incident 
frightened them, but later that evening he made light of the trauma 
with friends. At the point of expiring from inhaling a sex toy, he joked, 
“The first thing that went through my mind was, is this what it has all 
led to? The second thing was, what will all the newspaper headlines 



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in the world say tomorrow morning? The third was, are we get t ing 
this on videotape?” A short time later, Theodore had the offen d ing 
Benwa Ball framed against a velvet purple heart with a caption: “Lest 
We Forget.” 32 

The aura of Hefners sexual prowess allowed him to enhance his 
public persona at every opportunity. Delighted by the growing legend, 
he observed, “It wasn’t difficult to figure out that the most successful 
sex object I’d created was me. It was a role I was very comfortable 
playing.” When commenting to the press about his reputation as a 
Casanova, pride occasionally shaded into vanity, even crassness. “I have 
built here what could be viewed as a perpetual woman machine,” he 
commented in a 1978 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “Women, 
although they say they like a faithful and monogamous man, are very 
attracted to a man who has had a lot of romantic experiences. The 
more experienced you are, the more desirable you are to a woman.” 
Reveling in the transgressions, the uninhibited pleasure-seeking that 
defined his sexual life in the late 1970s, Hefner described it as the 
period when “I was least my mother’s son.” 33 

But Hefner’s grand experiment in liberated sexuality made up 
only one side of mansion life in the 1970s. His other passion con- 
sisted of game playing, which he elevated to the level of obsession. 
Along with a fraternity of male friends dubbed “The Rabbit Pack” by 
one wag — it included John Dante, Joe DeCarlo, Bernie Cornfeld, 
Shel Silverstein, Gene Schacove, Jim Brown, Lee Wolfberg, John 
Rockwell, Berry Gordy, Billy Eisenberg, Michael Trikilis, and James 
Caan — he engaged in competitions that would last for hours, or 
even days. Monopoly was a favorite, but pinball became an even 
bigger addiction. The gamehouse on the mansion grounds soon 
grew stuffed with the latest pinball machines — Bally even issued a 
special model with images of Hef, Theodore, and Patti McGuire — 
and became the site of marathon tournaments. Competition and 
conviviality mixed in equal measure. “You rotated and there were 
so many machines, and people would sit on the couch and talk and 
you could run back and forth and talk and play the game,” a girlfriend 
described. 34 

In Hefner’s hierarchy of pastimes in the 1970s, however, backgam- 
mon moved to the very top. He had been introduced to this ancient 
game early in the decade and his interest inspired a quartet of articles 
in the March 1973 Playboy that explored the history of the game, 



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its contemporary attraction, strategies of play, and the most stylish 
boards and gear. Hefner really got hooked, however, after attend- 
ing a 1972 world championship tournament in Las Vegas. Attracted 
by the intense, rapid-fire competition of the game and its veneer of 
jet-setting glamour and cosmopolitanism, he began to play seriously. 
Backgammon became a significant part of life at the mansion with 
games of varying size and duration going on almost all of the time. 
Celebrities, friends, high-rolling gamblers, and serious players joined 
Hefner in these activities and large amounts of money were won 
and lost. 35 

The mansion soon attracted world-class players such as Billy 
Eisenberg, Tom Gilbert, and Oswald Jacoby. Hefner also began 
frequenting tournaments and enjoyed some success, once beating 
Tim Holland, a world-ranked player. As backgammon mania set in, 
according to Eisenberg, a group of regulars competed constantly as 
“Hef and the boys started playing for 12, 18, 24, 36, 48 hours at a 
time.” Some of the games got out of hand, with unskilled players 
losing great amounts of money and debts going unpaid. Eventually, 
Hefner was forced to end such games in the interests of harmony at 
his Southern California Eden. At the same time, he became a major 
investor in Pips, a private backgammon club in Hollywood that flour- 
ished for several years. 36 

The game became a consuming passion for Hefner. He found it 
exciting, noting that it had “a confrontational quality about it that 
really got the adrenaline going.” Focusing both his considerable 
powers of intelligence and energy, he threw himself into the games 
and grew adept at many of its subtle strategies. Friends marveled at 
how, on more than one occasion, he would sit at the backgammon 
board for two or three days straight without food or drink except for 
a steady supply of Pepsis and an occasional dexie. “Hef had the focus 
of a laser in those days,” reported one observer. Backgammon even 
trumped sex on occasion in the Hefner universe. One time a beautiful 
blond Playmate spent several hours lolling about as she read maga- 
zines, munched on snacks, and chatted with the staff as she waited 
for some romantic attention from the publisher. But he stayed holed 
up in the library engaged in a marathon backgammon contest. She 
finally gave up around 5 a.m., gave him a goodnight kiss, and left 
to go to bed. Hef looked up briefly to quip, “Greater love hath no 
backgammon player,” and went back to rolling the dice. 37 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefners obsession with games in the 1970s reflected, of course, 
Playboy’s broader social philosophy of pleasure-seeking. But it also 
appealed to more personal impulses. First, they provided lighthearted 
distraction to a man who had been utterly absorbed in his work for 
two decades. “The ability to enjoy such frivolous pastimes is part of 
what life ought to be all about,” he said in 1974. But pinball and back- 
gammon also offered a framework for sociability to someone whose 
shy nature did not make for a natural bon vivant. “He was great with 
games and fun with games. That’s when you get him relaxed and his 
personality really comes out,” Sondra Theodore commented. “He 
shares himself with his friends.” Nor was it surprising that Hefner, one 
of the great business and journalistic successes in postwar America, 
savored the competition and relished winning. Finally, games pro- 
vided an outlet for the publishers burning energy. Having pulled 
away from much day-to-day direction of the Playboy enterprise, 
he found that backgammon offered, in the words of Eisenberg, an 
opportunity to deploy his “restless imagination and intellect, and . . . 
a flight from boredom.” 38 

Thus Hefner’s private pursuit of pleasure in the 1970s marked 
a shift, both in intensity and in kind, from his earlier style of life. 
While the revelry at the Chicago mansion in the 1960s had aimed to 
revitalize American society, the hedonism of his California Shangri- 
La during the following decade seemed to map out an escape route. 
Personal life had become not an enhancement to public life, but an 
alternative. Once more, however, Hefner’s growing preoccupation 
with private endeavors and states of mind had a larger cultural reso- 
nance. As many commentators noted, not only the Playboy publisher 
but large segments of the American population seemed to be turning 
inward. 


Ill 

In 1976, Tom Wolfe published an essay that captured an essential 
impulse of the new era. The 1970s, he wrote, “will come to be known 
as the Me Decade.” In the aftermath of the upheavals of the 1960s, 
great numbers of Americans had embraced spiritual revivals, popular 
therapies, physical fitness, self-help movements, hippie communes, 
and sexual liberation in a cultural groundswell promoting personal 



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self-fulfillment. This powerful wave of introspection involved 
“changing ones personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and 
polishing ones very self and observing, studying, and doting on it,” 
wrote Wolfe. Seeping from the discourse of religion, counseling, 
physical exercise, and many other endeavors were the phrases of 
the age: “Lets talk about me . . . Lets find the Real Me . . . Lets get 
rid of all the hypocrisies and impedimenta and false modesties that 
obscure the Real Me.” Self-gratification had become the order of 
the day. 39 

Many social observers concurred, seeing in the 1970s a great 
shift toward the cultivation of personal life. Rooks with revealing 
titles — The Culture of Narcissism, America’s Quest for the Ideal 
Self The Pursuit of Loneliness, Habits of the Heart: Individualism 
and Commitment in American Life, The Fall of Public Man — poked 
and prodded the American psyche and produced similar diagnoses: 
Americans were displaying all the symptoms of an advanced case 
of self-absorption. As one critic put it, the modern citizen increas- 
ingly “demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, 
perpetually unsatisfied desire.” 40 

In many ways, Hefner and his increasingly indulgent Playboy life- 
style became a symbol of the “Me Decade.” Instead of writing the 
Playboy Philosophy or speaking at public forums on the moral impli- 
cations of Playboy, he now played marathon backgammon games, 
orchestrated group-sex sessions, and convened charity fund-raisers 
featuring Hollywood’s beautiful people. Instead of taking to the air- 
waves to debate William F. Ruckley and Harvey Cox on changing 
social values, he now headlined televised Playboy parties that cele- 
brated his celebrity lifestyle. To many, Hefner embodied the modem 
culture of personal self-fulfillment. 

Hefners statements in the 1970s certainly encouraged the con- 
nection. He intoned the “Let’s talk about me” mantra, telling one 
interviewer, “I know there’s a tremendous amount of fascination, 
projection, and fantasy [among the public] related to the life I’m 
living” and describing it as “an adventure in finding a better life- 
style.” He insisted that material wealth and pleasures of the flesh, in 
fact, would bring contentment. “What really produces happiness is 
self-fulfillment, doing what you really enjoy doing,” he claimed, then 
added that he “didn’t know anybody who was fulfilling their personal 
aspirations to the extent that I’ve been able to.” In a 1974 Playboy 



290 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Interview, he insisted that personal needs trumped social expectations. 
“What I’m saying is that every one of us needs a personal sense of 
identity and self-worth in order to function satisfactorily in society.” 
And to those who might disapprove of his lifestyle, he offered a blunt 
rejoinder: “My feeling, frankly, is that I earned it and I have a right to 
do with it exactly as I damn please.” 41 

In 1979 Christie Hefner, by then working for Playboy, confirmed 
her father’s link to the “Me Generation” impulse. “It is now perfectly 
acceptable to say, out loud, what I care about is myself,” she con- 
tended in an interview. “I think what Wolfe calls the ‘me decade,’ 
the whole sense of self-emphasis, self-enrichment, all of that is very 
much . . . inherent in the original concept in the magazine and the 
life that Hefner’s been living.” As her father put it, the 1970s was an 
era when “I was savoring my personal life as never before.” 42 

A steady stream of publicity highlighted his hedonistic life of 
personal pleasure. The 1972 New York Times Magazine quoted his 
description of his glamorous new Hollywood mansion: “My house is 
an extension of me and my personality. It’s a controlled environment 
which lets me do the things I like to do.” According to Newsweek, 
Hefner had shaped his magazine into “a mainstream guide to living 
well in the me-decade.” The Chicago Sun-Times argued that Hefner’s 
secret for well-being lay in the fact that “he has thought about the 
way he would like to live and then has gone ahead and lived that way.” 
People magazine, in a 1974 cover story, observed that the continuous 
round of fun and games at the mansion embodied his “deliberate 
change in lifestyle.” 43 

Playboy itself increasingly became a showcase for Hefner’s per- 
sonal life. The twentieth anniversary issue in January 1974 show- 
cased him as a larger-than-life subject of the Playboy Interview. “I 
can say that in many ways, he is even a more remarkable figure than 
his legend,” related the interviewer, who went on to describe his 
“staggering” energy, “overwhelming” powers of concentration, and 
“incredibly compelling personality.” Growing numbers of feature 
articles, such as the “Playboy Mansion West” and “Playboy’s Playmate 
House Party,” revolved around his private endeavors. Most strikingly, 
in July 1977 Playboy debuted a regular new feature, “The World of 
Playboy,” which focused on Hefner and his activities — meeting celeb- 
rities, appearing in the media, partying at the mansion. In September 
1978, for example, it described him arriving in the Bahamas for the 



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opening of a new Playboy casino and his fifty-second gala birthday 
party with glowing prose and abundant photographs. 44 

Ultimately, Hefner strode out of the pages of Playboy in the 1970s 
as a swinging icon of self-gratification. Even more than in earlier 
decades, he became, in his words, “a guy people can fantasize about 
and see as a representative of the good life.” While the press charac- 
terized his hedonistic lifestyle as Playboy’ s “most important fantasy — 
or is it reality?” a delighted Hefner fed the hype, declaring, “Well, the 
major sex object created by Playboy over the last 25 years happens 
to be me.” 45 

Hefners personal image reached a new high when he hosted 
Saturday Night Live , NBC’s hip, satirical new comedy revue, on 
October 15, 1977. From the opening monologue, when he sang a sly 
version of the old hit song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” while decked 
out in red silk pajamas, through his appearance in several skits — trying 
to seduce skeptical cast member Jane Curtin on his famous round bed, 
dispensing the Playboy Philosophy to attentive students while dressed 
as Socrates, leading a space mission as Captain Macho — Hefner vali- 
dated his central position in American mass culture. His appearance 
proved to be one of the most popular in the history of the show, and 
it took him to a new level of personal celebrity. 46 

Yet the reaction to Hefner s brand of personal hedonism reflected 
the polarization emerging in American society by mid-decade. The 
continued appeal of Playboy indicated substantial public approval, as 
did Hefners Saturday Night Live role and a host of awards and other 
appearances. Playboy’s twenty-fifth anniversary in late 1978 and 
1979 also reflected its popularity. An extravagant anniversary issue 
was over four hundred pages long, filled with advertising, and loaded 
with pieces by heavyweights such as John Updike and Gore Vidal 
and an interview with Marlon Brando. It also crowned the aptly 
named Candy Loving as the twenty-fifth anniversary Playmate. ABC 
televised two prime-time specials — one a history of Hefner and 
Playboy, narrated by George Plimpton, and another titled Playboy’s 
Roller Disco and Pajama Party — that pulled down high ratings. The 
mansion hosted a Playmate Beunion that garnered much publicity, 
while Hefner accepted a star on the famous Walk of Fame from the 
Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. 47 

In addition, commentators offered positive assessments of the 
Playboy legacy. They placed Hefner alongside Elvis Presley as a giant 



292 


MR. PLAYBOY 


figure in modern popular culture, praised him as an embodiment of 
the American dream, and commended his leadership of the modem 
sexual revolution. Newsweek described Playboy as “an institution” 
after years of “cheerleading for sex and the good life.” Chicago 
mayor Michael A. Bilandic even proclaimed a “Hugh M. Hefner 
Day” in a tribute that acclaimed his “ideas and determination and . . . 
outstanding contributions to the business world.” 48 

At the same time, Hefners flamboyant 1970s image found a 
frostier reception than in earlier decades. Growing numbers of 
critics viewed Mr. Playboys opulent lifestyle as a cruel hoax in an 
era when many Americans were struggling to maintain a decent 
standard of living amid economic recession and inflation. Faced 
with shrinking jobs, rising prices, and a mounting energy crisis, 
many Americans saw Hefners hedonism, in the words of one, as 
“out of touch with today’s reality, a decadent, indulgent relic of easy 
times and easy money.” Playboy’s vision may have been attractive in 
the past, but in “these days of hunger, war, terrorism, joblessness, 
economic hardship, and despoliation of the planet,” wrote one col- 
umnist, “ Playboy and the materialistic American Dream it is selling 
are becoming anachronisms.” Even Bob Greene of the Chicago 
Sun-Times , an old Hefner friend, suggested that the publisher’s 
lifestyle proved only that “you never really had to grow up if you 
didn’t want to.” 49 

More ideological critiques also took aim. Conservatives, who had 
begun to organize throughout America at the grassroots level by the 
mid-1970s, offered particularly strident attacks. Holding aloft an 
old-fashioned standard of personal character and rectitude, they 
assailed Hefner for fomenting moral decline, social degeneration, 
and personal licentiousness. M. J. Sobran blasted the publisher in 
the National Review for promoting a shallow narcissism and insidi- 
ous moral relativism that undercut firm notions of right and wrong. 
That so many Americans had come to see their moral standards as 
“subjective” and grown reluctant to “impose” them on the rest of 
society “is a measure of Hugh Hefner’s success,” he lamented. George 
Will rebuked Hefner as a purveyor of vulgar “adolescent fantasies.” 
In a long 1975 interview, the conservative columnist sparred with 
Hefner over the question of displaying sexuality. Was anything out 
of bounds? Will inquired. Would Playboy depict bestiality? When 
Hefner replied that such a scene would be degrading, the interviewer 



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pressed him: “There are some things that are objectively degrading? . . . 
I’m trying to find something that will cause Hefner to put his foot 
down. And I want to know on what ground it is.” 50 

Other conservatives embroidered these complaints. They vilified 
Playboy for prompting readers to “imagine the insanely debauched 
good time Hef is having.” They portrayed Hefner as an antique hip- 
ster mouthing the slogans of 1960s-style liberation, with one car- 
toon depicting a Playboy Bunny as a wrinkled old woman sitting in 
a rocking chair. Others waxed indignant about the modern epidemic 
of divorce, illegitimate births, alcoholism, welfare abuse, venereal 
disease, and drug abuse that could be traced to Playboy’s message of 
“instant gratification; if it feels good, do it.” Even worse was his profit- 
making from pushing “gay rights, legal abortions, legalization of pot, 
and a myriad of other social sicknesses.” Ultimately, conservatives 
agreed, Hefner symbolized the moral degradations of animal sex: 
“the girls — unblemished, defying gravity, they are kneeling, bending, 
reclining declarations of all Playboy was or probably ever will be.” In 
the face of this onslaught, the publisher could only lament, “For some 
tradition-oriented people I represent the devil without horns.” 51 
But certain progressive analysts also criticized Hefner by the 
mid-1970s, describing his sex-and-games sensibility as vacuous, 
materialistic, and chauvinist. Rolling Stone, the official voice of the 
counterculture, sneered at Hefner’s world of “adolescent fantasy,” 
while some liberal newspapers mocked Playboys “acquisitive chic” 
and “consumerism run amok.” The advance of the women’s move- 
ment had rendered Hefner’s sexual ethic “absurd, embarrassing, 
or irrelevant,” contended one editorial. Even the sexual revolution 
had gone sour under Playboy’s leadership, concluded the Christian 
Science Monitor. The crusade for freedom to enjoy sex had deterio- 
rated into “a mass-media venture in the skin trade” and a frivolous 
pursuit of thrills as “D. H. Lawrence was succeeded by Hugh Hefner, 
and Lady Chatterley ended up as a centerfold.” 52 

Thus Hefner’s quest for self-fulfillment in the 1970s came at a 
price. For much of the previous two decades, Mr. Playboys lifestyle 
had reflected many mainstream hopes and aspirations in an expand- 
ing, affluent, optimistic America. But now it triggered disgruntlement 
as much as desire. To be sure, his devotion to personal experience 
reflected the spirit of the “Me Decade,” but the growing intensity 
of his sexual radicalism and conspicuous consumption increasingly 



294 


MR. PLAYBOY 


appeared elitist. While some found it exciting and inspiring, many 
working- and middle-class people facing job loss and inflation, a sex- 
saturated media, a surging rate of illegitimate births, and an eroding 
family structure, grew resentful of the Playboy ethic. Many ordinary 
citizens looked not admiringly but askance at the country’s most noto- 
rious symbol of hedonistic pursuit. Hefner, protected in his Shangri- 
La cocoon, remained largely oblivious to such outside pressures. As 
one of his friends quipped about him in the 1970s, “Luxury corrupts. 
And absolute luxury corrupts absolutely.” The joke revealed more 
than it intended. 53 

As Hefner devoted himself to play with single-minded zeal 
in the 1970s, moreover, problematic issues with his magazine and his 
company moved to the fore. Playboy Enterprises, Inc., encountered 
financial reverses while Playboy, the anchor of Hefner s professional 
and personal life, was faced with redefining itself in the liberated 
culture it had helped create. Hefner, preoccupied with the physical 
and emotional delights of his private fantasyland, had walked away 
from the direction of his enterprise. Getting it back on course proved 
to be a difficult process. 



PART IV 


MALAISE 




15 


A Hutch Divided 


A s Hefner frolicked in the sybaritic atmosphere of his Southern 
California Shangri-La in the 1970s, Playboy, the backbone of 
his enterprise, faced unprecedented challenges. The maga- 
zine had climbed to a high point of circulation in 1972 with some 
seven million monthly readers, but its readership began to slip as 
a spate of imitators intruded on its territory. This brought not only 
revenue losses but a crisis of identity. No longer the daring trailblazer 
on the sexual frontier, the magazine struggled with a growing percep- 
tion that time had passed it by. Ironically, the success of the sexual 
revolution in the Swinging Seventies made Playboy appear quaint to 
acolytes of sexual openness. 

Moreover, to many ordinary Americans struggling daily with 
economic decline during the decade, the magazine s message of unfet- 
tered consumerism seemed a mocking reminder of the halcyon days 
of an earlier era. Ideological polarization also whipsawed Playboy. 
Progressives drawn to womens liberation and economic redistribu- 
tion saw its images of naked women and conspicuous consumption 
as retrograde, while conservatives viewed it as a symbol of the 1960s 
threat to family values, social stability, and moral certitude. 


297 



298 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefner and his associates struggled to reposition Playboy in this 
new atmosphere of sexual liberation, cultural and political disarray, 
and economic contraction. The task proved daunting. A central ques- 
tion loomed — what would Playboy be in a post- 1960s society marked 
by an economic nosedive, “Me Decade” personal preoccupations, 
and a growing division between a sexually liberated, urban, bicoastal 
elite and a family-oriented, religiously-inclined “Middle America” in 
the heartland worried about the nation s decline? The continued suc- 
cess of Hefner and his magazine depended on the answer. 


I 

At the dawn of the 1970s, Playboy occupied a lofty spot among influ- 
ential American magazines, as a gathering of authors indicated. On 
October 6-8, 1971, Hefner and A. C. Spectorsky hosted the Playboy 
International Writers Convocation at the Playboy Towers Hotel in 
Chicago. Many luminaries of American letters who had published 
in the magazine attended: David Halberstam, Alan Watts, Studs 
Terkel, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Arthur C. Clarke, John Kenneth 
Galbraith, Harvey Cox, Art Buchwald, James Dickey, John Cheever, 
Alex Haley, V. S. Pritchett, Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin, Tom Wicker, 
Garry Wills, and others. In fact, so many literary aristocrats showed 
up that the Atlantic termed it the “Gathering at Bunnymeade.” For 
the better part of three days, these distinguished writers mingled with 
Playboy editors and each other to critique the magazine, participated 
in panels on subjects such as “The New Journalism,” and partook of 
lavish banquets. Most of the writers seemed delighted, and occa- 
sionally awestruck, to meet fellow authors whose achievements they 
respected. The Writers Convocation, by gathering under one roof so 
many distinguished authors, confirmed Playboys prestigious position 
in the world of American letters. 1 

The convocation proved to be a turning point in Playboy’s history. 
Only a few months later, on January 17, 1972, Spectorsky died of a 
stroke at his winter home in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The suave New 
Yorker had been in ill health for a couple of years, suffering a serious 
heart attack in 1970 that kept him away from the magazine offices 
for several weeks. Vague discussions had begun about a possible suc- 
cessor, but the sudden demise of the man who had provided strong 



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299 


editorial leadership since the mid-1950s sent a shock of uncertainty 
throughout the organization. 

Several dynamic young editors — Arthur Kretchmer, Sheldon Wax, 
Nat Lehrman, and Murray Fisher — had come to the magazine in the 
mid-1960s and stood ready to assume leadership. Intelligent, ener- 
getic, and ambitious mavericks of leftist political disposition, each had 
carved out a fiefdom. In the exhilarating atmosphere of profit and 
acclaim for Playboy, each pursued his own projects as publication 
decisions were reached through byzantine negotiations or hammered 
out in chaotic, occasionally confrontational editorial meetings. “Spec 
seemed increasingly overwhelmed by a staff heady with success,” 
Hefner recalled later. “I was the only one who could go into that 
lions cage of creativity without a whip and a chair.” After Spectorskys 
death, Hefner chose Kretchmer as Playboy s new executive editor 
and appointed Wax and Lehrman as associate editors. 2 

Thirty-one-year-old Arthur Kretchmer had been with the maga- 
zine for five years after an education at the University of Pennsylvania 
and City College of New York, a stint with Cavalier, a Playboy imita- 
tor, and a short period doing freelance writing for publications such 
as the Village Voice. A tall, thin New Yorker with a thick shock of long 
black hair, a beard, and thick wire-rimmed glasses, he often displayed 
the morose expression of a disaffected intellectual. Kretchmer saw 
himself as a bohemian radical, an impression reinforced by his fond- 
ness for blue jeans, boots, and T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such 
as “Trotsky Youth.” The contrast with the elegant, urbane Spectorsky 
could not have been more striking. “In another time and place, Spec 
would have been a member of the aristocracy and Kretch a revolu- 
tionary,” Hefner commented. Indeed, Kretchmer fancied himself a 
counterculture radical and planned to stay at the magazine for only 
a couple of years. But Spectorsky saw something in the young man — 
incisive intelligence, sound judgment, tough-mindedness, an eye for 
good writing — and began to groom him as his heir apparent. The two 
had a falling out over Kretchmer s strong independent streak and 
leftist politics, but shortly before Spectorskys death they reconciled. 
Hefner believed Kretchmer was the best man for the job, and the 
new executive editor quickly brought a boost of youthful energy to 
the magazine. 3 

The new editorial leadership at Playboy inspired confident talk 
about a bright future. A few months after taking the helm, Kretchmer 



300 


MR. PLAYBOY 


told the New York Times that “many months we think we’re publishing 
the best magazine in America. Spec had to prove that Playboy 
was the kind of magazine Jean-Paul Sartre gave interviews to. We 
don’t have to prove anything now.” Editors joked confidently about 
their preeminence, with one wisecracking that his idea of the perfect 
Playboy would “feature articles by West Coast models interlaced with 
the genitalia of famous writers.” Despite the confidence, however, 
Playboy faced one of the biggest challenges in its history. A rival had 
arisen in the men’s magazine field and launched an all-out assault on 
Hefner’s publication, beginning a war that bit into the older maga- 
zine’s profits and prestige. 4 

The conflict had begun in the summer of 1969, when a series of 
audacious ads for a new magazine, Penthouse , appeared in major urban 
newspapers and advertising trade journals. The initial one pictured the 
famous Playboy rabbit logo lined up in the crosshairs of a telescopic 
rifle sight over the caption, “We’re going rabbit hunting.” Another pic- 
tured the rabbit reading the new magazine and declared, “Penthouse 
envy. Has the aging playboy gone soft?” The ad campaign reflected 
the brash sensibility of Penthouse’s editor, Robert Guccione. An Italian 
American from Brooklyn, Guccione had moved to Great Britain in the 
late 1950s where, after dabbling with odd jobs, cartooning, and editing 
for several years, he started Penthouse in 1965. It quickly amassed a 
circulation of several hundred thousand, and he decided to challenge 
Hefner’s position on his home turf with an American edition. 5 

Penthouse shamelessly parroted Playboy in its format, offering a 
fold-out “Pet of the Month,” an introductory page termed “Housecalls,” 
a monthly interview, a letters-to-the-editor column called “Forum,” 
and the same mix of nude features, fiction, cartoons, and articles on 
food, fashion, and public affairs. Guccione shrugged off guilt, contend- 
ing that “We took no more from Playboy in the end than Playboy took 
from Esquire and other magazines.” More importantly, Penthouse 
presented an explicit, “hot” treatment of sexuality — revealing poses, 
women fondling themselves, lesbianism, fetishism, threesomes, let- 
ters to the editor detailing kinky sexual adventures — that went far 
beyond anything found in the older magazine. Representatives of 
Penthouse contrasted this “international” sexual flavor to the fresh- 
faced, all-American, cheerleader style favored by Hefner’s publica- 
tion. They made a shocking argument: Playboy had fallen behind the 
times in terms of sexual liberation. 6 



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Guccione pushed this impression by relentlessly attacking his 
more established rival as old-fashioned, even anachronistic. He 
decried Playboy pictorials as “artificial” with images shaped by art 
directors, hairstylists, and fashion photographers and contended that 
his photos conveyed a natural, earthy, real atmosphere of sexuality. 
“We give our readers the pictures without the lectures. The pinups 
without the hang-ups. Writers yes, philosophizers no,” declared 
his ads. He derided Hefners magazine as “uptight” and outdated in 
a liberated new age. “Playboy’s reader profile gets older every year 
while ours gets younger,” he proclaimed. 7 

The clash between Guccione and Hefner gradually took on a nas- 
tier, more personal edge. The flamboyant Penthouse editor, habitually 
dressed in tight leather pants, boots, open-necked shirts, and gold rings 
and medallions, sniped at the older mans style and image. “Playboy 
projects the sexual identity of Hugh Hefner, which is the closest thing to 
a closet queen that I know of,” he told Rolling Stone. Hefner dismissed 
his outspoken rival as a self-promoter who, for all of his derisive com- 
ments, aped the Hefnerian lifestyle with his New York mansion full of 
beautiful women and plans for Penthouse clubs. “I don’t really object 
to this energetic impersonation of his,” Hefner commented sharply. “If 
I were he, I’d want to be me, too.” Hefner snubbed Guccione the only 
time they met. After the publishers ran into one another at the house 
of a common friend, Bemie Cornfeld, and stiffly shook hands, Hefner 
invited Cornfeld to the mansion the next day to see a movie. But then 
Hefner’s secretary called Cornfeld to say that Hefner preferred that 
Guccione not come with him. 8 

The so-called “Pubic Wars” between Playboy and Penthouse ignited 
over the issue of pubic hair in nude photographs. Playboy had qui- 
etly crossed this sexual frontier in an August 1969 piece showing the 
Broadway dancer Paula Kelley, but Guccione did so more boldly in an 
October 1970 feature on a former Miss Holland. Hefner met this new 
standard of revelation in January 1971 with Playmate Liv Lindeland, 
insisting that the decision had been made long before Penthouse’s 
pictorial. The move raised eyebrows, and when pressed on whether 
average Americans were truly ready for pubic Playmates, Hefner 
grew testy. “You better ask God about that. He put it there, and it’s 
time that society grew up and recognized that pubic hair exists,” he 
replied. He also composed staff memos explaining the new param- 
eters: “Bemember, pubic hair is no longer a taboo at Playboy — as long 



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as it is handled in good taste.” In January 1972, Playboy took another 
step by presenting Marilyn Cole, a statuesque brunette from Great 
Britain, as the first full-frontal nude Playmate. One wag, noticing that 
the magazine began selling shares on the stock exchange around the 
same time, quipped that PEI “was the first company to go public and 
pubic in the same year.” 9 

Other than these maneuvers on the follicle front, Playboy main- 
tained a public pose of haughty indifference to its upstart challenger. 
But the numbers began to flash a warning. The first American issue 
of Penthouse in September 1969 sold 235,000 copies. Over the next 
two years sales skyrocketed, with the magazine attracting 1,280,000 
readers in August 1971 and breaking the 2 million mark in mid-1972. 
Playboy remained far ahead as its readership also climbed — 6.5 million 
copies a month in 1971, and a high-water mark of over 7 million in 
1972 — but the gap was narrowing. In the fall of 1973, Penthouse would 
be up to 4 million a month, while Playboy’s sales numbers leveled off 
and then began to fall. By 1976, the two magazines would be running 
close, with Playboy at 5-6 million and Penthouse at 4.5-5 million. 10 

As the competition intensified, Hefner realized that he must con- 
front the threat more directly. In the fall of 1972 he upped the erotic 
ante by launching a new magazine titled Oui, in partnership with 
the French publisher Daniel Filipacchi. Envisioning a Continental 
complement to Playboy that would blunt the Penthouse attack, Hefner 
described the new monthly magazine as having “a European accent 
in its humor, reviews, and approach to photography.” Oui started off 
strongly, but never showed a profit, and it gradually became discon- 
certingly clear that it was taking more readers from Playboy than 
from Penthouse. After several years of mounting red ink, PEI quietly 
sold Oui in 1981. 11 

Further complicating matters, other rivals began challenging 
Playboy’s hegemony. Throughout the early 1970s a proliferation of 
skin magazines brought increased competition for attention on news- 
stands. Publications such as Gallery, Touch, Voir, Genesis, Dude, 
Cavalier, Viva, and Coq blatantly imitated the Hefner formula but 
offered more explicit, kinkier photos. Baunchier publications such as 
Screw and Hustler specialized in extremely explicit, almost gyneco- 
logical images of female genitalia. This explosion of sex magazines, 
Time observed, saw publications “locked in battle to zoom in on ever 
more explicit poses and privacies.” When Esquire appraised the 



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skin-book boom — its cover featured a perplexed Hefner surveying 
an issue of Hustler — it exclaimed, “What have they done to the girl 
next door?” The article concluded sardonically that in many of the 
raunchy new magazines, she “comes on so strong that you’re tempted 
to move to a quieter neighborhood.” 12 

As the Pubic Wars became a multifront struggle in the first half 
of the 1970s, Hefner found himself figh t ing a growing impression 
that Playboy had become antiquated. He defended his publication as 
the standard that was attacked by rivals even as they copied it. “They 
say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he noted tartly, 
“so I guess I’ve been flattered more sincerely — and blatantly — than 
any other magazine publisher in history.” He noted that Playboy 
encompassed the entirety of the modern man’s interests while his 
competitors represented a tawdry throwback to the “Victorian-pom 
approach.” Some observers agreed, however, with Guccione’s decla- 
ration that “Playboy has become part of the Establishment.” The Los 
Angeles Times portrayed Playboy’s modesty as “going the way of the 
1950s Esquire,” and Time observed that while Penthouse centerfolds 
“glory in showing off their buxom bodies, moles and all, Playboys 
Playmates seem unreal, plasticized, and antiseptic.” The Wall Street 
Journal suggested that Hefner and his magazine had become devoted 
to “striving for acceptance by the conventional world of commerce 
and letters.” 13 

In a sense, Playboy had become a victim of its own success. After 
cracking open the door in American society that prohibited public 
displays of nudity in the 1950s, the magazine had knocked it off its 
hinges during the following decade. By the 1970s, a great wave of 
sexual images — not only magazines but graphic movies, massage par- 
lors, adult bookstores, strip clubs and “girlie shows,” and sex shops 
peddling erotic paraphernalia — washed over the American landscape 
and stretched the limits of popular acceptance. Indeed, the decade 
witnessed the appearance of what the New York Times termed “Porno 
Chic.” X-rated movies such as Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones, 
and Behind the Green Door attracted vast popular audiences and 
made celebrities of porn actors such as Harry Reems and Linda 
Lovelace. Commercial sex districts, filled with erotic clubs and the- 
aters, mushroomed in big cities throughout the country, The Joy of 
Sex, a sex manual, became a huge best-seller, and sex clubs such as 
Plato’s Retreat and Sandstone sprang up to meet the desires of sexual 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


adventurers. While the new sexual openness tended to focus on an 
urban, bicoastal audience, it spread into Middle America. As Time 
observed in its 1976 cover story on “The Porno Plague,” Mason City, 
Iowa (population 32,000), offered five bars featuring nude dancers. 
“The concept of a loosened, public, open sexuality has become part of 
mainstream American life,” noted a Newsweek columnist in 1975. 14 

Indeed, Playboys own survey on sexual behavior underlined the 
significant shift in American mores since the Kinsey research two 
decades earlier. Titled “Sexual Behavior in the 1970s,” the study was 
funded by the Playboy Foundation and published in six monthly 
installments in 1973-1974. It examined the sexual attitudes and 
behavior of about two thousand people in a variety of cities and towns 
and reported that “we are now surrounded by evidence that people 
are openly doing things that a generation ago were unthinkable, or at 
least among the most guarded of personal secrets.” Investigators 
found that Americans engaged in sex more frequently and increas- 
ingly endorsed premarital sex, oral sex, and the end of the double 
standard for men and women. Statistics revealed a marked increase in 
every category of sexual practice since the Kinsey Reports. Moreover, 
the Playboy survey reported that this sexual sea change had become 
highly visible in the media and a major issue for the public. Data 
suggested that “sexual liberalism is the emergent ideal that the great 
majority of young Americans — and a fair number of older ones — are 
trying to live up to,” the survey concluded. 15 

For Hefner and his magazine, ironically, the triumph of the sexual 
revolution created uncertainty. With sexual expression running ram- 
pant, erotic images available everywhere and in every form, and the 
lines of permissiveness being pushed to the point of obliteration, 
Playboy’s role appeared increasingly blurry. As Hefner acknowledged 
in a 1973 interview, his magazine was “not nearly as avant-garde, 
or on the forefront of the fight for sexual freedom in terms of con- 
tent, as it once was.” But what territory could it stake out in a new 
world where there was no longer a repressive establishment to hurl 
brickbats against? Seeking to avoid the raunchiness of Penthouse and 
Hustler while remaining sexually relevant, Playboy struggled to steer 
a course in this unfamiliar situation. 16 

Initially, Hefner and his editors adopted a strategy of making 
the erotic content of their magazine “hotter.” By 1974 Playboy was 
displaying a variety of more explicit photographs and features and 



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the Playmates began to appear in more provocative poses. Even the 
magazine’s cover began to broadcast this new aesthetic. The October 
1975 cover portrayed two women, both with dress straps pulled down 
and one with a breast exposed, embracing warmly beside a head- 
line that said, “Sappho: Stunning Portraits of Women in Love.” This 
rather shocking departure into lesbian sex proved only a warm-up for 
the following months issue. The November 1975 number crossed 
another line with its cover photo showing a young woman in a theater 
watching a film. Sprawled in her seat wearing spike-heeled shoes, she 
had her blouse open and her skirt pulled up with legs spread apart. 
With one hand, as Newsweek archly described it, “to give her the 
benefit of the doubt, [she] seems to be plumbing the depths of her 
bikini panties for a stray kernel of popcorn.” 17 

This strategy misfired. Playboy’s forays into explicit shots, les- 
bianism, and female masturbation triggered outrage among adver- 
tisers, who deluged its offices with complaints about obscenity. 
A furious Howard Lederer, director of advertising, told Hefner that 
some $40 million of annual advertising revenue was in danger of dis- 
appearing over the raunchier content and threatened to resign. In 
an interview, Arthur Kretchmer admitted that Playboy needed to 
be more careful about crossing the line “separating sensuality and 
vulgarity.” Even Hefner was uncomfortable. “I wasn’t interested in 
publishing pornography,” he recalled of this period in later years. “My 
intent, from the outset, had been to make sex and nudity acceptable 
in America.” 18 

So in November 1975, Hefner ordered a strategic retreat. In a 
series of meetings and memoranda, he made it clear that Playboy was 
pulling back from lewd and lascivious displays. At an editorial confer- 
ence held at the mansion in Los Angeles, he announced, “Gentlemen, 
we have lost our compass. The magazine has lost sight of what it was 
meant to be. . . . Playboy has to present the sensuality without the 
coarseness. We’re going to make this a class act again.” News releases 
went to outlets such as the Gallagher Report, which reported that 
Hefner had decided it was “folly” to compete with newer magazines 
in terms of sexual explicitness. Arthur Kretchmer was dispatched to 
New York City, where he reassured nervous advertisers that Playboy 
had no intention of becoming an outlet for pornography. “Hefner 
doesn’t want to be known as a smut publisher,” he declared. “We’re 
not fighting a crotch war at Playboy .” In December 1975, Hefner 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


reassured PEI shareholders at their annual meeting that Playboy 
was pulling out of the explicitness sweepstakes. The magazine also 
promised newsstand wholesalers an end to nudity or explicit images 
on its cover, thus ensuring that it could be presented openly and not 
wrapped in brown paper or shielding. 19 

So after this traumatic episode of raunchus interruptus, Playboy 
reestablished its ethic of tasteful eroticism. But “taste” did not exactly 
offer a blood-stirring new agenda, and Arthur Kretchmer understood 
the dilemma. In 1974, he had told Hefner that Playboy needed an 
overhaul and the publisher had agreed. Two years later, Kretchmer 
mused about “tilting it toward a younger, brighter and hipper read- 
ership” and making it once again an indispensable item for smart, 
sophisticated young men. “We’re not only going to be more attuned 
to the reality of living in the 70s, but we’re going to ask questions and 
challenge premises as well,” he promised. But revamping Playboy for 
a new age, it soon became evident, was easier said than done. 20 


II 

After abandoning “this gynecological, who-can-be-more-explicit race” 
among men’s magazines, as Hefner put it, Playboy groped for fresh 
identity throughout the latter 1970s. But the process of evolution was a 
subtle one. In fact, readers of the magazine encountered a comforting 
array of familiar features as articles explored stylish clothes, fast cars, 
domestic amenities, and popular pastimes. Newfangled technology 
such as “videocassettes” came in for attention, as did the hottest new 
pinball and video games. Entertainment trends and sports attracted 
the usual attention, ranging from Norman Mailer’s two-part article 
on the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “rope a dope” fight in Zaire 
to a fascinating piece on Francis Ford Coppola, Hollywood’s trendiest 
young film director. Two other traditions, “Playboy’s Annual Jazz and 
Pop Poll” and “Playboy’s Annual Football Picks” also remained firmly 
embedded in the magazine’s format. 21 

Playboy kept up its tradition of distinguished writing. Old friends 
such as John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut contrib- 
uted pieces as did a galaxy of new contributors that included Doris 
Fessing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Crichton, N adine Gordimer, 
Susan Sontag, Farry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, and Gunter Grass. 



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In October 1976, Playboy ran a preview excerpt of Alex Haleys 
new book, Roots, edited by the magazine’s Murray Fisher, which 
went on to become a huge best-seller and popular television mini- 
series. Reviews of current books, records, and movies continued, as 
did the Playboy Forum with its discussion of a wide array of social 
issues. The Playboy Interview presented scintillating discussions 
with figures ranging from Marlon Brando to Germaine Greer, Jack 
Nicholson to Joan Baez, Norman Lear to Anita Bryant, Albert Speer 
to Erica Jong. 

Sex, of course, stayed front and center stage in Playboy through- 
out the 1970s. The Playmate of the Month remained the primary 
erotic attraction, although with a few minor alterations. Hefner fur- 
ther personalized Playmates by adding their signature to the center- 
folds in 1975, and by introducing two years later the Playmate Data 
Sheet with its vital statistics, ambitions, and “turn-ons” and “turnoffs.” 
Traditional celebrity pictorials included old favorites such as Elke 
Sommer and Raquel Welch as well as rising young starlets such as 
Valerie Perrine, Melanie Griffith, and Barbara Bach. Readers also 
encountered the customary photographic surveys of beautiful coeds 
from around the country, such as “The Girls of the Pac 10” or “The 
Girls of the Ivy League.” 

But a new explicitness marked these erotic presentations. While 
Playboy’s cover was toned down and photographs never tilted 
the raunch meter like Penthouse and Hustler, its sexual ethic became 
more daring and explicit than ever before. Playmate photographs 
were increasingly revealing, with full-frontal nudity a standard fea- 
ture and spread-legged poses more common. An uninhibited sexual 
aesthetic also influenced the “Playboy Advisor,” which increasingly 
described intense or unusual sexual experiences, often with graphic 
details, and discussed sexual techniques such as oral sex and the use 
of sex toys. By 1977, Playboy was examining X-rated movies as part of 
its film reviews. Articles ranged further afield as in 1976 s “Me and the 
Other Girls,” by Kathy Lowry, which offered a confessional account 
of experimentation with bisexuality. The following year saw both Dan 
Greenburgs “My Weekend of Flashy Orgasms,” which detailed his 
stay at Sandstone, the notorious California retreat specializing in mul- 
tipartner sex, and “Swingers Scrapbook,” a text and photo feature on 
the sexual frontier of orgies, threesomes, and every variety of fantasy 
fulfillment. In 1978, the magazine presented “The Great Playboy 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


Sex-Aids Road Test.” This consumer survey, which certainly would 
have made Ralph Nader blush, recruited three couples to test the 
reliability and performance of vibrators, dildos, massagers, stimula- 
tors, and other kinds of sexual paraphernalia. 22 

Despite the intensified eroticism and popular, time-tested fea- 
tures, Playboy’s standard formula appeared stale to some observers, a 
middle-aged rendering of what seemed to be hip rather than the real 
thing. Arthur Kretchmer believed that the problem stemmed from 
post- 1960s malaise. Following the social turmoil and political crusad- 
ing of the Aquarian Age, he observed later, “Playboy was as aimless 
for a while as I think the culture was. . . . Society cooled off and, to 
be frank, we cooled off.” 23 

Hefner grew aware of these difficulties. “I think Playboy is a very 
good book, but it has lost some of its vigor,” he confessed to the 
Village Voice in 1975. When pressed on whether time had passed 
Playboy by, he admitted that “after twenty-two years, the magazine 
had become repetitive.” Rut revisions were coming, the publisher 
promised, as he and his editorial staff were “exploring and examin- 
ing the editorial product, and making some changes to revitalize the 
book, make it more contemporary, make it more part of today.” 24 

Indeed, the mid-1970s saw Hefner and his lieutenants laboring to 
revitalize the venerable publication. They kept intact Playboy’s basic 
formula of sex and consumerism, but experimented with features that 
would distinguish it from its competitors. As Kretchmer described it, 
the magazine sought to define and embody “the cutting edge of the 
mainstream.” 25 

One editorial project sought to integrate Playboy’s sexual themes 
into a broader emphasis on the modem male lifestyle. ‘We are going to 
re-emphasize what the magazine is first and foremost: a lifestyle book 
in which sex is one part of a total package,” Hefner announced. Or in 
Kretchmer s pithy phrase, Playboy intended to be “the indispensable 
magazine to the urban male reader whose psyche is 28 years old.” 26 

In part, this attempt to “relate to contemporary lifestyles,” as 
Hefner described it, involved a trendier tone. It also involved modi- 
fications to the format, as two new lifestyle sections appeared in 1977. 
“Playboy’s Pipeline” consisted of short pieces on contemporary trends 
that promised “tips on keeping your lifestyle in high gear,” while 
“Playboy on the Scene” pledged to cover “what’s happening, where it’s 
happening, and who’s making it happen.” In the April 1978 issue, for 



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example, they examined a variety of topics: importing foreign cars, 
surviving tax audits, rehabbing historic houses, the newest micro- 
wave oven technology, and European influences on mens fashion. In 
Hefner s words, these modifications “reemphasized what the book is 
first and foremost: a lifestyle magazine devoted to how one spends 
ones leisure time.” 27 

Playboy’s reinvigorated lifestyle orientation inspired a new pro- 
motional campaign. With great fanfare, the magazine began running 
a series of ads in 1977 titled “The Playboy Reader: His Lust Is for 
Life.” They presented Playboy as representative of a cohort of pros- 
perous, under-thirty-five young men who had rebelled in the 1960s 
but now sought to work within the system. “Good news for American 
business: those young men who wouldn’t sell out in 1967 are buying-in 
in 1977,” said one ad. The campaign depicted a cadre of sensitive, 
educated, upscale Baby Boomers as “new materialists” who thought- 
fully consumed items that promised to create a richer, emotionally 
satisfying life. “These life -embracing young adults have kept the best 
of the 60s, leavened it with their own maturity and invented a whole 
new thing for the 70s,” touted another ad. “L aded jeans. Now pre-faded 
and with a designer name at $40 a pair. Leather boots. Soft leather boots.” 
Photos reinforced the text, showing Playboy subscribers jogging in 
fancy running suits, scuba diving, sitting down to a gourmet meal, 
and snuggling with their “lady” to watch the sunset at their summer 
house. After being eclipsed by the social agitation of the 1960s, the 
good life reappeared at the center of the Playboy lifestyle in the “Lust 
for Life” campaign. 28 

Playboy also recast itself as a venue for investigative journalism 
in the mid-1970s. Operating in a cynical atmosphere shaped by the 
Vietnam debacle and the Watergate scandal, the magazine increas- 
ingly labored to expose public life as a sordid mass of corruption, 
ignorance, and greed. In 1974, Playboy set the trend with its seri- 
alization of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodwards All the Presidents 
Men, the blockbuster expose of the Nixon administrations crimes 
and demise. In subsequent years, articles examined “Big Brother” 
surveillance of citizens by the federal government, incompetence 
and financial fraud in the American health-care system, pervasive 
safety violations in the airline industry, the looming bankruptcy of 
the Social Security system, and rampant corruption in modem labor 
unions. A particularly shocking article appeared in 1976, when 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


“The Puppet and the Puppetmasters: Uncovering the Secret World 
of Nixon, Hughes, and the CIA” accused Howard Hughes of using 
his multibillion-dollar empire to manipulate President Richard Nixon 
and the CIA into illegal, covert intelligence operations that resulted 
in Watergate. 29 

Playboys new emphasis on nonfiction included healthy doses of 
the “New Journalism.” By the late 1960s and early 1970s, journalists 
such as Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Gay 
Talese were reformulating traditional practice by replacing “objec- 
tive” reporting, “balanced” analysis, and narrative description with 
abundant dialogue, dramatic scenes, and the authors participation in 
the story. Playboy embraced this flashy, dramatic, highly personalized 
style, describing it as “a writer telling a story that he or she has lived 
with little pretense of objectivity.” It offered Richard Rhodes’s per- 
sonal account of the destruction of the Mississippi River by economic 
developers and his exploration of the modem cocaine culture, which 
featured him buying and using the drug, contacting sellers and dis- 
tributors, and carefully avoiding the police. Dan Greenburg’s “My 
First Orgy” humorously related his own fumbling participation in 
several group-sex parties. Playboy even ran “The Great Shark Hunt,” 
the story of a drug-soaked deep-sea fishing tournament in Cozumel 
by one of the genre’s founders, Hunter S. Thompson. 30 

Playboy directly engaged with political issues as never before. 
Throughout the 1970s, the magazine consistently appeared as a left- 
ist gadfly, although growing into the role had been painful. A. C. 
Spectorsky had clashed with his younger, more radical assistant edi- 
tors over the political drift of the magazine in the late 1960s, describ- 
ing their dissenting articles as just “do-good indignation.” He furiously 
objected to a draft article on environmentalism condemning vaca- 
tion resorts, noting that it began “with a putdown of Tahoe, a resort 
that we are covering favorably in our upcoming travel feature for 
March.” Hefner often agreed, writing one memo that urged the edi- 
tors to avoid “thinking of ourselves, and of our readers, as a bunch 
of young hippie activists. They’re not — and we shouldn’t attempt to 
be.” In the spring of 1970, amid a long, favorable report on the state 
of Playboy and its immediate future, Spectorsky issued a warning. “It 
would be very easy — and very dangerous — to revolutionize playboy, 
to make it the voice of the growing edge of anti-establishment youth,” 
he wrote. 31 



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With Spectorsky’s death, the rift over politicizing Playboy ended 
as the magazine became an unabashed advocate of leftist political 
positions. In 1971, it announced a three-part symposium on “A New 
Set of National Priorities” that claimed, “The decay of our cities, the 
deterioration of the environment, and the enduring poverty suffered 
by 15 percent of the population are the three major challenges the 
U.S. must meet when it divests itself of the burdens of Vietnam.” 
The experts mustered to discuss these crises were a who’s who of 
liberal spokesmen, including Senator Gaylord Nelson, Mayor Carl 
B. Stokes, and the writer Michael Harrington. 32 

Playboy elaborated its leftist critique of American social and politi- 
cal ills throughout the 1970s. It derided the evangelist Billy Graham 
for promoting “the unswerving belief that God, the flag, and the 
president are an immutable trinity.” It showcased liberal senator 
Philip Hart’s denunciation of modern corporate crime, presented 
E. L. Doctorow’s jeremiad on American nuclear weaponry, and fea- 
tured a long, sympathetic Playboy Interview with radical icons Tom 
Hayden and Jane Fonda. Other articles analyzed Nelson Rockefeller 
as “the true Godfather of American politics” and described Nixon’s 
appointees to the Supreme Court as architects of “police-state ver- 
dicts” and governmental tyranny. In 1977, “The Playboy Enemies 
List” spoofed the infamous file kept by the Nixon administration by 
amassing its own register of conservative villains, including Phyllis 
Schlafly, Charles H. Keating Jr., George Gilder, and Frank Rizzo. 33 

At the same time, Playboy’s politics, while firmly leftist, displayed a 
streak of cynicism. The whole system was corrupt, the magazine often 
seemed to suggest. In 1972, a skeptical article observed that supporters 
of the presidential campaign of George McGovern “consistently con- 
fused their elitist youth constituency — college students — with youth 
itself. There were damn few gas-station attendants on the floor of 
the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach.” Pieces skew- 
ered insurgent icons from the 1960s such as Rennie Davis, a radical 
leader who had become the chief proselytizer for an Indian religious 
guru, and Timothy Leary, who betrayed many of his old friends to 
the federal government in the 1970s. The magazine went after Jane 
Fonda, observing that her multimillion-dollar Hollywood career often 
seemed at odds with her outspoken political radicalism 34 

Playboy’s political engagement produced one of the biggest jour- 
nalistic coups of the decade: the notorious Playboy Interview with 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


Jimmy Carter in the fall of 1976 that created a political firestorm 
on the eve of the presidential election. Throughout the summer, 
Robert Scheer had interviewed Carter several times on assignment 
for Playboy. In the final session at Carters home in Plains, Georgia, 
the candidate was asked about the fear among some voters that his 
Baptist piety and moralism might unduly influence his political judg- 
ment. Carter replied with a long soliloquy about his religious convic- 
tions. Christianity taught that everyone was a sinner, he said, and 
it was Gods place to judge sin. The righteous Christian should not 
haughtily condemn the person who “leaves his wife and shacks up 
with somebody out of wedlock,” nor should you “consider yourself 
better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch 
of women while the other is loyal to his wife.” He confessed, “Tve 
looked on a lot of women with lust. IVe committed adultery in my 
heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do — 
and I have done it — and God forgives me for it.” 35 

Carters comments caused a national uproar. “The Great Playboy 
Furor,” as Newsweek described it, saw “newspapers throughout the 
country making whoopee with Carters over-candid confessions.” 
Traditionalists and religious conservatives denounced him for hypoc- 
risy, pointing to his willingness to talk to a girlie magazine while claim- 
ing that his Christian character was the basis of his campaign. They 
condemned his use of salty language — “screw” and “shack up,” in 
particular — as degrading and unworthy of a national leader. While 
some ministers defended Carter for his “judge not lest ye be judged” 
position, many more attacked him for undermining the need for 
moral judgment. In the indignant, if linguistically challenged, retort 
of one, “It is not holier-than-thou to condemn another man for shack- 
ing down [sic] with another mans wife.” Even some Democrats and 
liberal supporters questioned the lack of judgment and unseemliness 
that colored this episode. Max Lerner, an old friend of Hefner and 
Playboy, chastised the candidate for using “locker-room language” 
and misjudging presidential standards of decorum. 36 

Carters interview delighted cartoonists. One depicted a Playboy 
Bunny sitting on the lap of the leering candidate as he said, “I’m 
Jimmy Carter. I’m running for President.” Another showed a tooth- 
some Carter staring at the Statue of Liberty, while in a balloon above 
his head appeared an image of Lady Liberty in the nude. In a takeoff 



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on the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey , a cartoon depicted Carter 
standing next to a giant rendering of the Playboy rabbit logo as the 
candidate asked innocently, “Rabbit? . . . What rabbit? I don’t see any 
rabbit.” His opponent, President Gerald R. Ford also took advantage 
of the Georgian’s Playboy problem. Ry mid-October, some 350 news- 
papers in twenty-two states were running an ad that juxtaposed Ford’s 
recent appearance on the cover of Newsweek with the Carter inter- 
view on the cover of Playboy next to Playmate Patti McGuire, who 
was seductively unbuttoning her shirt. The caption said, “One good 
way to decide this election.” Ry late October, Carter ruefully admit- 
ted to the press, “I would not give that interview if I had to do it over 
again,” but he held on to narrowly win the election. 37 

Playboy’s vigorous investigative and political journalism in the 
1970s sat alongside a softer editorial theme: romance. Hefner urged 
his editors to make it the new touchstone of the magazine, declaring, 
‘When there is romance, the sex connection is difficult to attack. 
Romance is both traditional and contemporary. Romance is blue col- 
lar and white collar. We have always been more romantic and there- 
fore more corny, than our contemporary magazines. ... If the public 
could be made to see our concept of ourselves, any image problems 
that we’ve been having would be over.” Kretchmer urged the staff to 
infuse romance into fashion pieces, service features, travel articles, 
even the “Playboy Advisor,” which should increase its focus on letters 
involving romantic situations and problems. 38 

This theme brought a new flavor to the magazine. A feature 
titled “The Rousing Return of Romance” announced, “The signs are 
everywhere. Men and women are wearing softer colors and dressing 
up. On the beaches, couples walk hand in hand. In sidewalk cafes, 
they sip Perrier or white wine. Candlelight is replacing electricity in 
some restaurants.” It guided readers through the romantic features 
of cities such as San Francisco and New Orleans, offered tips for 
choosing romantic gifts, gave pointers on the art of romantic conver- 
sation, and suggested romantic products such as massage oils, silk 
pajamas, and fluted champagne glasses. Playboy began running a 
regular column titled “Man and Woman” that focused on romantic 
issues. In its twenty-fifth anniversary issue in January 1979, a cartoon 
even departed from the usual sex-and-frolic themes. It pictured a 
middle-aged man reading Playboy in bed while his wife stood naked 



314 


MR. PLAYBOY 


before the mirror as she prepared to put on a negligee. He looked up 
and said affectionately, “You know something, sweetheart? Playboy 
isn’t the only thing that’s still great after twenty-five years.” 39 

Perhaps most tellingly, however, Hefner and his editors reshaped 
Playboy to capture the “Me Decade” Zeitgeist of the 1970s. The 
magazine, with its long-standing agenda of sexual and consumerist 
satisfactions, saw the “Let’s talk about Me — let’s find the real Me” 
as a reemergence of its natural constituency. The present generation 
“is closer to what Playboy is all about and has been talking about 
for 25 years than at any time since we’ve been publishing,” Hefner 
explained. “It’s interesting that we live in what has been called a me 
generation . . . [with] an appropriate appreciation of living one’s own 
life and getting the most out of it.” 40 

Playboys “Lust for Life” promotional campaign in 1977 epito- 
mized the new sensibility. An early ad in the series described a typical 
subscriber as “very much focused into today and what he can do for 
himself. . . . Expressing himself to the world. Without denying him- 
self the world.” Another quoted a subscriber who said, “My reaction 
to things now is how do I feel, not so much how the world feels.” 
Another described the value system of the typical modem Playboy 
reader. “First, it’s a lifestyle of fierce loyalty. To himself. And to any 
product that helps him to be himself,” it reported. 41 

A host of Playboy articles fanned out to explore the personal ter- 
rain of the “Me Generation.” “Leisure in the Seventies” concluded 
that any potential pitfalls involved with the growth of nonwork time 
“are outweighed by the promise of self-exploration and discovery — it 
affords anyone with the energy and imagination to fill — rather than 
kill — his free time.” In 1971, Playboy’s “Student Survey” concluded 
that college youth were “turning away from social concerns toward 
more personal pursuits.” In 1974, “I’m OK, You’re So-So,” by editor 
G. Barry Golson, parodied self-awareness programs and popular psy- 
chotherapies as guides for “how to achieve self-fulfillment through 
mental discipline, positive thinking, and a firm belief in other people’s 
mediocrity.” Other pieces described the new physical fitness craze as 
enhancing “your ability to use your body to live life as you want to,” 
and the “inner game of sex” as a Zen strategy shifting emphasis “from 
outward success to inner growth.” 42 

The Playmates, always a mirror of social values, reflected the turn 
toward introspection. “The greatest luxury in my life is solitude,” 



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avowed Linda Beatty, Miss August 1976. “The days I have to myself 
I spend on myself: reading, exercising, and meditating. . . . Working 
out our differences [with men I date] teaches me about myself.” 
Pamela Jean Bryant, Miss April 1978, described herself as a dreamer 
and a loner. “I spend hours at the beach or chain myself to my desk, 
just writing in my journal. . . . I’ve stopped listening to others and 
started listening to myself.” 43 

Perhaps the ultimate expression of the magazine’s “Me Decade” 
orientation, however, came in “The Playboy Beport on American 
Men.” At mid-decade, Hefner commissioned Louis Harris and 
Associates to conduct a survey of American men to discover their 
values and attitudes. Over a five-week period in late 1976 and early 
1977, researchers questioned 1,990 men between the ages of eigh- 
teen and forty-nine to discover their views on family, love, drug 
use, work, leisure, religion, money, health, friends, peace of mind, 
changes in womens roles, and politics. When released to the public 
in 1979, the report concluded that American men could be divided 
into four groups along a continuum: “Traditionalists,” who defended 
time-honored values of the past; “Conventionalists,” who were pre- 
pared to consider new alternatives after they had gained acceptance; 
“Contemporaries,” who preferred fresh values as part of a continuity 
with the established order; and “Innovators,” who embraced change 
and a willingness to experiment with alternative lifestyles. 44 

But cutting across these categories, the “Playboy Beport” claimed, 
was a powerful endorsement of personal self-fulfillment. “The 
increased emphasis men are placing on self-fulfillment, pleasure, and 
doing one’s own thing is dramatically altering America’s traditional 
value system,” it concluded. “The emerging self-oriented values 
represent a new personal liberalism. It stands apart from the tradi- 
tional, conservative-radical distinctions based on social and economic 
issues. Its concern is for the conduct of one’s personal life.” A project 
spokesman explained that this was not mere selfishness or greed, but 
a demand for “personal relevance,” a “quest for self-realization.” The 
use of money, work, and leisure to find private meaning was “very 
much what this ‘me generation’ is.” This was music to Playboy s ears. 
It was “now perfectly acceptable to say, out loud, what I care about is 
myself,” a spokesperson for the magazine noted when the report was 
released. The drive for self-enrichment was “inherent in the original 
concept in the magazine and the life that Hefner’s been living.” 45 



316 


MR. PLAYBOY 


The adjustments to Playboy made by Hefner and his editors in 
the mid-1970s stabilized its identity after the drift of the Pubic Wars 
period. But journalistic success, of course, depends on profits as 
well as product. The larger financial picture of Playboy Enterprises, 
Inc., grew hazy in the 1970s as the magazines readership slid and 
most company endeavors lost money, causing concern about the 
future among investors and in the business community. These 
nagging monetary problems made it clear that the future of Hefner s 
enterprise demanded financial reforms as well as editorial rethink- 
ing. The result was one of the biggest shake-ups in the history of the 
company. 


Ill 

In early 1976, Playboy Enterprises, Inc., quietly removed the “Playboy” 
moniker from two of its largest facilities. Its New Jersey resort west 
of New York City became the “Great Gorge Resort Hotel,” while its 
hotel in downtown Chicago transformed into “The Towers.” “What 
we did,” said a company vice president, “was admit that the Playboy 
name and rabbit-head emblem were a detriment to business. That’s 
quite an admission for an outfit that a few years ago was sure it was 
going to conquer the world.” 46 

The change revealed much. By the mid-1970s, Hefners company 
was facing a financial crisis as Playboy and the London casinos con- 
tinued turning a profit while its other far-flung endeavors — clubs, 
hotels and resorts, films, records, and books — were losing prodigious 
amounts of money. Pretax profits of some $20 million in 1973 had 
sunk to $2 million in 1975 and rose only slightly to $5 million in 1976. 
In an interview with Advertising Age, Hefner blamed part of the 
problem on a weak economy but also admitted that his company had 
been “growing without really getting on top of the individual areas, 
departments, and divisions.” Many company insiders were more 
cynical, joking darkly that PEI leaders “pushed a wheelbarrow full of 
money down to the basement every night and burned it.” 47 

In the summer of 1975, Hefner initiated a draconian measure. 
He brought in Victor Lownes, his old sidekick, who had left Chicago 
in the early 1960s to run the profitable Playboy casino operation in 
England. Lownes became head of Playboy Clubs International, the 



A HUTCH DIVIDED 


317 


biggest money drain in the company, with instructions to reform the 
operation. Lownes, who quickly became known as “Jaws,” brought 
his inimitable flair and notorious mean streak to the Windy City. He 
announced his plans for “getting rid of the potted plants and all the 
people hiding behind them,” joking that he might move operations 
back to the old headquarters on Ohio Street and hold a footrace 
where “anyone who can get down there and claim a desk we’d keep. 
Everyone else would be out.” Within a few weeks he brutally fired 
dozens of people. But Lownes went too far when he announced that 
“Hefners personal image is not that useful of a promotional vehicle 
anymore,” and the publisher reined him in. “I’ve got egg on my face 
and I guess I was moving faster and farther than Hef wanted me to,” 
said a chastened Lownes. But the damage had been done — company 
morale lay shattered. 48 

In 1976, the Wall Street Journal offered a bleak assessment of 
Hefner’s empire: a drop in circulation and advertising with the maga- 
zine, a flood of red ink with hotels and resorts and domestic Playboy 
Clubs, the record and film divisions losing money, the Lirst National 
Bank of Chicago withdrawing two lines of credit totaling $6.5 mil- 
lion because of the drug scandal, a hostile IBS leveling a $7.7 million 
bill for back taxes, PEI stock bottoming out at a price of $4 a share. 
Ironically, the article contended, many problems stemmed from the 
perception that the sexual revolution had passed Playboy by. “Nobody 
gets that excited about looking at a Bunny anymore,” it noted. But 
difficulties also came from the company’s “reputation for poor man- 
agement” and its disdain for business expertise. Overall, the Journal 
concluded, it was clear that “Playboy’s days of booming growth have 
ended.” 49 

Hefner had grown painfully aware of looming problems. Usually 
bored by business details, he listened closely to his 1975 task force 
and its recommendations for corporate reorganization. While initially 
resisting proposals to fire people and jettison company projects, he 
gradually grasped the magnitude of the economic difficulties fac- 
ing PEI. After a hard-nosed appraisal, Hefner committed himself to 
organizational restructuring, no matter how difficult. 50 

He moved dramatically in the spring of 1976. Hefner announced 
that he was stepping aside as president and chief operating officer of 
PEI and had launched a search for a replacement who would focus 
on the day-to-day operation of the company. He would remain as 



318 


MR. PLAYBOY 


chairman and chief executive in charge of major policy decisions. 
Hefner had finally come to terms with not only his own limited 
business acumen but that of the friends he had entrusted to run his 
company. Respect and communication between the founder and 
his lieutenants had broken down. “One of the things that bothered 
me the most was their attitude toward Hefner,” said one task force 
member. “I saw everything from contempt to just total disregard to 
casual dismissal. ... I think they were perceiving an ineffective leader 
and that was an accurate perception. He was, at that time, an inef- 
fective leader.” 51 

By the summer, Hefner found his man in Derick Daniels, a forty- 
seven-year-old vice president of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. 
The son of a patrician North Carolina family, he had grown up in 
Washington, D.C., and attended the University of North Carolina 
before going into journalism. Daniels worked for the Durham 
Morning Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Atlanta Constitution, and 
Miami Herald and got his big break in 1967 when he became city 
editor of the Detroit Free Press, just in time to direct the paper to 
a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the devastating race riots of that 
year. In 1974, he became a vice president and chief of news opera- 
tions for Knight Ridder, Inc., with its chain of thirty-two newspapers 
nationwide. 52 

When an executive recruiter first approached him, Daniels 
recoiled. “I told the headhunter, ‘No, no, no,’ that I really didn’t want 
to talk about it,” he admitted to Business Week. But curiosity got the 
best of him, and when he met Hefner they clicked immediately. After 
five or six hours talking together, Daniels was struck by the publisher’s 
intelligence and honesty. “He was a guy who knew what he wanted, 
he knew what the problems of the company were, and knew some- 
thing had to be done with it, and he was ready to do it,” Daniels 
recalled later. He became convinced that Hefner genuinely wanted 
an infusion of managerial expertise. In his words, “He wasn’t going to 
be looking over your shoulder every moment — [he was] a man who 
had recognized that he had built something that had outgrown his 
own interest in continuing to try to run day to day.” 53 

So Daniels accepted the position and joined the company on 
October 1, 1976. He took the helm with characteristic confidence 
and disarming wit. He told the press that Hefner “made it clear to 
me that he understands the need for a professional manager with an 



A HUTCH DIVIDED 


319 


entrepreneurial flair. He wants that place run and I intend to run it.” 
Revealing his plans to move into a Chicago penthouse apartment near 
PEI headquarters, he quipped, “Eve done my duty to the suburbs, 
back lawns, home repairs.” When asked if his own sexual education 
had prepared him to enter the notorious Playboy scene, he joked, 
“Like everyone else my age, I learned about the female anatomy from 
the Sears catalogue .” 54 

In terms of style and appearance befitting a Playboy president, 
Daniels appeared right out of central casting. Slightly built, urbane, 
and impeccably tailored, he had an unusual pair of mismatched 
eyes — one blue and one hazel — topped by stylishly barbered locks 
that spilled down over his ears and collar. His tanned and deeply lined 
face — a friend once compared it to the facade of a North Carolina 
beach house — wore an intense, brooding, occasionally bemused 
expression. A four-packs-a-day smoker, he deployed the constant 
Benson & Hedges cigarette in his hand as a prop to accent words or 
phrases uttered in a smoky drawl. Somewhat reserved in social and 
professional situations, he cultivated stylized mannerisms that rein- 
forced an impression of incisive intelligence, idiosyncratic style, and 
understated toughness. “First impression is John Wayne trapped in 
Joel Greys body,” noted a reporter upon meeting him . 55 

Daniels emerged quickly as an articulate spokesman for Playboy. 
He painted a bright future, describing it as “a magazine that cel- 
ebrates life” and a purveyor of dreams. “I see the need for fantasy 
in a complicated, difficult world,” he said. “If you don’t dream about 
things that can be, what hope is there?” He linked Playboy to “the 
upscale reader — the upwardly mobile man, open to new ideas and 
experiences” who had “a feeling for quality” both in life and in his 
consumer preferences . 56 

But Daniels got off to a controversial start. A few months after 
starting his new job, he held a belated farewell party in Miami that 
sent jaws dropping throughout the Playboy organization. Held at the 
spacious home of a sculptor friend in Coconut Grove, the gather- 
ing featured male butlers and bartenders dressed in leather-and- 
leopardskin outfits with bare buttocks. Female attendants wore black 
thong panties and no tops. In the middle of the festivities, a shapely 
young woman performed a striptease to reveal her pubic hair shaved 
in the shape of a heart. Moreover, Daniels appeared on the cover of 
the Miami Magazine reclining against his twenty-two-year-old female 



320 


MR. PLAYBOY 


companion and dressed in his garb for the evening: a gold lame jumpsuit 
unzipped to the waist and gold neck chain and medallion. When Lee 
Gotdieb, PEIs public relations director, saw the story and cover photo, 
he scrambled down the hall to ask Daniels to suppress any more public- 
ity. While the company was striving to create an image of seriousness 
and fiscal responsibility, he complained, this story appeared showing 
“the new president in this bizarre get-up at some kind of orgy.” As 
Hefner recalled later, “If I was afraid of hiring someone who was too 
stuffy, I didn’t have anything to worry about with Derick .” 57 

As Daniels took up the presidency of PEI, his personal style did 
little to reassure nervous investors and executives. He married the 
young woman on the magazine cover, M. J. Taylor, the day before 
assuming the presidency. A tall, self-confident, articulate young woman 
with a full figure often on display with see-through blouses, she was 
a free spirit who once attended a corporate reception barefoot. The 
Danielses quickly acquired a reputation in Chicago for outlandish par- 
ties in their Towers penthouse apartment that spawned rumors of 
sexual “swinging.” The new presidents personal eccentricities — daily 
consumption of up to thirty cups of coffee, fasting for two days every 
week — added to his mystique, as did his flamboyant wardrobe. He 
would appear at the office in an elegant blue pinstriped suit, or a white 
suit with matching white shoes, or leather pants with sweater and scarf 
and loafers with no socks, or a flying suit with red cowboy boots. At 
a welcoming party held in the Playboy Mansion, he wore a billowing 
white blouse, tight white trousers, and white high-heeled boots, with 
a white silk scarf draped around his neck. As Daniels told one of his 

new colleagues, at Knight Ridder he had been “a closet freak Now 

I work in a corporation where I can be what I want to be .” 58 

Many company executives found this unseemly for a corporate 
president. One feared that Daniels was “absolutely, personally out 
of control, and that we had hired a nut.” Victor Lownes was particu- 
larly contemptuous. “Go up to your room and have a party, Derick, 
and don’t bother me with this nonsense,” he was overheard reply- 
ing to a Daniels directive. In fact, as rumors spread about the social 
antics of the new president and his wife, Lownes coined a moniker 
for the couple that soon spread throughout the Playboy organization: 
“The Bizarros .” 59 

But Hefner and Daniels mutually supported one another. Publicly, 
Hefner lauded his new lieutenant’s business and administrative skills, 



A HUTCH DIVIDED 


321 


while Daniels praised the publisher at every opportunity. Much of 
America had repressed sexual impulses, he told the New York Times , 
until “Hugh Hefner taught his readers that it was healthy to be a 
human sexual creature.” To the Chicago Tribune, he described the 
publisher as “the classic entrepreneur” and “the single most impor- 
tant promotional entity that Playboy has.” 60 

Daniels, with Hefners support, used his first six months as presi- 
dent to formulate a basic strategy for saving PEI: focus on strengths 
and get rid of liabilities. The company had started with a strong 
core — the magazine and the clubs — but then caught a bad case of 
“conglomerate fever,” expanding into “hotels and resorts and movie 
theatres and record companies . . . with very little knowledge of the 
businesses they were getting into,” he observed. Daniels’s plan was 
simple: “to trim off some of the things that were not working and . . . 
build the core strength of the whole company.” 61 

In the spring of 1977 Daniels amputated several unprofitable 
PEI enterprises, closing the Playboy resort hotel in Jamaica and the 
Baltimore Playboy Club. He soon sold off theaters in New York and 
Chicago, franchised several new Playboy Clubs, suspended motion 
picture production, and reached a partnership agreement with 
Columbia Records regarding the company’s ailing record division. 
“We are organizing, planning, training, head-hunting and, especially, 
professionalizing our approach to multiple businesses,” Daniels told 
the press. In a widely publicized “hutch cleaning” in September 1977, 
he terminated some seventy PEI employees from the bloated payroll. 
These cutbacks were necessary, Daniels stated, because “over the 
years a sizable number of functions and jobs grew up which did not 
contribute directly to the profitability of the company.” 62 

Nearly everyone, both inside the company and out, agreed that 
such reforms were overdue. Wi t hin a short time, the cutbacks had 
stopped the financial slide of Hefner’s enterprise as fiscal years 1977 
and 1978 showed a modest rebound in profits and the price of PEI 
stock rose. Financial analysts responded, with Forbes headlining “The 
Bunny Battles Back” and the New York Times judging that “Playboy 
Settles Down to Work: Glamour Gone, Profits Revive.” The com- 
pany, most observers agreed, had righted itself but was not totally out 
of the woods. “The bunny is back, no denying that,” said one analyst. 
“But it’s not clear whether it’s merely shot up with a lot of cortisone 
or has truly regained its health.” 63 



322 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Thus Hugh Hefner and Derick Daniels were able to stabilize PEI’s 
financial condition. But as the 1970s ended, Playboy occupied a more 
uncertain position than it had at the beginning of the decade. In 
an increasingly polarized America, some critics on both the left and 
right took aim at the Hefner agenda. During the twenty-fifth anniver- 
sary celebration in 1978-1979, Mike Royko, the cranky populist and 
longtime columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times , scathingly described 
the publisher as a self-promoter whose idea of sophistication was 
to “jiggle pinball machines in his rec room, drink a case of Pepsi a 
day, and play backgammon with those of his companions intelligent 
enough to understand the game.” The liberal commentator Richard 
Cohen dismissed Hefner as a man desperately trying to concoct his 
own legend out of the need “we all have to justify our lives, to give 
it meaning — to say that it has been more than just pleasures and 
luxuries.” The radical Guardian denounced Playboy for promoting 
“consumerism run amok.” 64 

On the right, critics excoriated Playboy’s “leering, voyeurs view of 
sex from the mens room wall” and its “obsession for materialism and 
personal pleasure. It is shallow and greedy.” Colorful denunciations 
of Hefner and his magazine piled up: “embarrassingly hedonistic,” 
“an overdose of ostentatious materialism,” “flesh-peddling spiffed up 
with name brand contributors,” “sexual junk.” Perhaps the unkind- 
est cut came from the town newspaper where Hefner had gone to 
college, which concluded that “ Playboy , which has gone from bad 
to worse in portrayal of the female anatomy and in usage of language 
of the gutter, has done little but degrade the society in which it has 
prospered over this fourth of a century.” 65 

But much worse was to come. As a new decade opened, a con- 
servative political and cultural revolution that had slowly gathered 
momentum throughout the 1970s took the United States by storm. 
Opposed to nearly everything that Playboy represented, it drove 
Hefner and his enterprise into a desperate defensive posture. Within 
a short time, what had been merely disconcerting became horren- 
dous as Mr. Playboy entered a long, nightmarish era in his life. 



16 


The Dark Decade 


O n August 15, 1980, Hefner and a group of his friends were 
playing in the mansion gamehouse when a curious phone call 
arrived. When the publishers appointments secretary, Cis 
Rundle, picked up, the caller identified himself and asked to speak 
to Hefner. Cis told the publisher, who, annoyed at being interrupted, 
said she should take a message. The caller replied, “Well, he better 
come to the phone. He’s got a dead Playmate on his hands,” and men- 
tioned the Playmate’s name. Rundle gasped. The victim was Dorothy 
Stratten, the recently crowned Playmate of the Year, a transcendently 
beautiful, innocent young woman who had won the heart of everyone 
in the Playboy organization since arriving in Los Angeles from rural 
Canada only two years before. 1 

Rundle rushed to Hefners side and blurted out the news. In her 
words, “Hef turned slate grey. I first thought he might faint, but he 
didn’t. He was just in shock. He went right to the phone and spoke 
for a bit. Everyone was just standing there frozen.” The detective 
reported that the young woman had died from a shotgun blast to the 
face, and the body of her estranged husband also lay at the scene, 


323 



324 


MR. PLAYBOY 


apparently having killed himself after shooting his wife. Hefner was 
stunned. Another aide, who had rushed in, reported that “Hef 
was standing there and looked sort of like a stone. He was ashen. His 
face was all white. ... I put my hand on his arm and it was like his skin 
was moving.” As the reality of the terrible event sank in, Hefner gath- 
ered himself and began orchestrating calls to the victim’s friends and 
family as well as to key figures in the magazine. Disbelief mingled 
with horror and grief at the news. 2 

While a tragedy in its own right, of course, Dorothy Strattens 
tragic death symbolically marked the beginning of nearly a decade 
of profound trouble for Hefner and the Playboy enterprise. Like 
a stampede, a host of problems — political, cultural, economic, 
personal — pounded down upon the publisher and his entertainment 
empire and threatened to demolish it. A trio of problems flared up 
in 1980, foretelling that Hefner would enter the darkest period of his 
life, both professionally and personally. As events unfolded, it was far 
from certain whether he would survive. 


I 

In mid-October 1980, a series of newspaper and television ads 
appeared in the Chicago media. Sponsored by the National Heritage 
Foundation, a Christian consortium, they denounced Hefner as a 
smut peddler spreading a message of “low-commitment sex, recre- 
ational drugs, selfish materialism, and adolescent irresponsibility.” 
They pointed to lascivious features in the twenty-fifth anniversary 
edition of Playboy, quoted anti-Christian passages from the Playboy 
Philosophy, and noted an epidemic of teenage pregnancies, divorces, 
venereal diseases, fatherless children, and abortions sweeping through 
modem America. “Playboy, perhaps more than anyone else in the 
past 20 years, has called America to self-indulge as never before and 
it appears that we are now reaping the results,” the ads stated. “It’s 
becoming evident that popular hedonism will eventually wreck a 
society.” 3 

The timing of these media messages was no accident. They came 
about two weeks before the presidential election, a contest in which 
the Republican candidate, Governor Ronald Reagan of California, 
had emerged at the head of a powerful new conservative movement. 



THE DARK DECADE 


325 


Aiming to create a stronger American posture in foreign affairs, 
trim the welfare state, and renew commitment to the nuclear family, 
religious standards, personal responsibility, and sexual restraint, this 
crusade sought to reestablish traditional political, moral, and cultural 
values at the center of American public life. The Reagan Revolution 
had quietly taken root in the 1970s as a reaction against the wide- 
spread political dissent, cultural rebellion, and social turmoil that 
characterized 1960s America. As many Americans first grew befud- 
dled, then angry, a gathering backlash saw local organizations spring 
up around the country, often in the suburbs, in a grassroots political 
network for the so-called New Right. Fervent opposition to the per- 
missive morality of 1960s radicalism among disgruntled traditionalists 
led to a parallel mobilization on the cultural front. Groups such as 
the Moral Majority, founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1979, 
emerged determined to reassert Christian morality in the American 
political process. 4 

A series of clashes in the 1970s had established Playboy as a key 
target of the conservative insurgency. The dispute over passage of 
the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois, for instance, put Hefners 
magazine at odds with the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. She 
composed a ditty mocking Playboy’s support for the ERA and sang 
it on the steps of the capital to the tune of “Here Comes Peter 
Cottontail”: “Here comes Playboy Cottontail, Hopping down the 
capital trail, Trying to buy the votes for ERA, / Telling every girl and 
boy, / You can only have your joy, / Ry becoming gender free or gay.” 
Playboy’s defense of the pom actor Harry Reems, Screw magazine 
editor Al Goldstein, and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, all of whom 
had been prosecuted by local communities on charges of obscen- 
ity, also rankled traditionalists. While Hefner had rallied behind the 
defendants on First Amendment grounds of opposing censorship, 
angry conservatives saw the episodes as confirmation that he was a 
pornographer at heart. In their minds, Playboy became associated 
with hardcore magazines and films. 5 

In the 1980 election, conservatives made cultural issues of personal 
morality and responsibility a keystone of the Reagan run for the presi- 
dency. Drawing upon the famous phrase of the Puritan leader John 
Winthrop, Reagan declared his hope that America would “uphold 
the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and — above 
all — responsible liberty for every individual so that we will become 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


that shining city on a hill.” In his trademark smooth and earnest speaking 
style, the former California governor repeatedly posed a wholesome 
family life, personal responsibility, and traditional morality as anti- 
dotes to social decay. He recruited Robert Billings, an organizer of 
the Moral Majority, to join his campaign staff and in August 1980 
journeyed to Dallas to address some fifteen thousand followers of the 
Religious Roundtable, an organization of conservative Christians. “I’m 
sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals and perverts . . . 
coming out of the closet. It’s time for God’s people to come out of the 
closet,” he declared. Two months later, speaking at the annual meet- 
ing of the National Religious Broadcasters, Reagan stated, “I don’t 
believe we should have ever expelled God from the classroom.” 
While Reagan never mentioned Playboy directly, other conservative 
spokesmen did. William F. Buckley excoriated Hefner during the 
campaign as a man who sought “to justify the superordination of sex 
over all other considerations — loyalty to family, any principle of self- 
discipline, any respect for privacy or chastity or modesty.” 6 

The Moral Majority swung into action with particular force during 
the 1980 campaign. These cultural conservatives rallied in support of 
a traditional way of life under siege, seeing pornography, abortion, 
the ERA, homosexual rights, and denial of school prayer as “a matter 
of conscious plots [directed] at the traditional family and the peace- 
ful neighborhood.” In this eruption of activism, Hefner appeared 
as an agent of immorality and national decline. Falwell lashed out 
at the publisher angrily and often. In his 1980 book Listen America ! 
the minister denounced the “cult of the playboy” as a threat to the 
family while in speeches he declared, “People like Hugh Hefner and 
Larry Flynt ought to be in the penitentiary.” He attacked “the Hugh 
Hefners and the Jane Fondas, who weave their immoral philosophies 
into the moral fabric of this country” and described the publisher 
as “making a living from smut.” The Moral Majority Report even 
accused Hefner’s magazine of standing at the center of a national 
pornography-and-drugs network — supposedly, it also included 
NORML founder Keith Stroup, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, and 
Paul Krassner of The Realist — called the “Aquarian Conspiracy.” 7 
While Hefner was not surprised by the conservative resurgence — 
he had expected it since seeing public support for the police crack- 
down during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago — its 
vehemence galvanized him and inspired a spirited counterattack. 



THE DARK DECADE 


327 


Hefner portrayed his conservative detractors as revivalists for the 
1950s sensibility he had opposed in founding Playboy. “Were fight- 
ing some of the same fights again: abortion, censorship,” he argued, 
with the Moral Majority aiming to regulate the content of school 
libraries and television shows. Christie Hefner, now working for PEI, 
supported this libertarian position, claiming that the Moral Majority 
sought “to return women to the kitchen and prayers to the schools.” 
Moreover, with their talk of boycotting Playboy advertisers and 
screening the content of television shows, Falwell and his followers 
were threatening the First Amendment. “IVe got to believe that the 
majority of people, in fact, respect the right of others to choose what 
they want to read and what they want to see,” she argued. 8 

Hugh Hefner used Playboy to launch a full-bore attack on the 
Moral Majority and the new conservative movement. It ran a scath- 
ing piece, titled “The Reagan Question,” that accused Reagan of 
being a hypocritical, communist-obsessed simpleton who pandered 
to Moral Majoritarians, threatened nuclear war, repeated apocryphal 
stories from notecards, and submitted to the directives of his drill- 
sergeant wife. “The Astonishing Wrongs of the New Moral Right” 
blasted the Falwell crowd as radicals who sought “to restructure 
the entire framework of American society to fit a set of rigid, doc- 
trinaire political and religious beliefs.” “Inside the New Right War 
Machine” revealed the fund-raising and organizational maneuvers of 
the conservative activists Richard Viguerie, Howard Philips, and Paul 
Weyrich. The 1980 campaign represented “a religio-political attack 
on personal freedom,” Playboy declared melodramatically. “There’s 
a war going on and the bad guys are winning.” 9 

Playboy also employed mockery. A parody titled “Prayboy: 
Entertainment for Far- Righteous Men,” contained a pictorial on “The 
Girls of the Moral Majority” and an article titled “Public Fibraries — 
Must They Contain Rooks?” The “Prayboy Advisor” answered a 
query from a puzzled, pious couple about the nature and location 
of loins, often mentioned in the Rible: “All we can say is — you do have 
loins. One set each. Rut, unfortunately, we can’t tell you where they 
are.” In the “Prayboy Interview: GOD,” when the Almighty was asked 
how to cleave to the path of righteousness, he replied, “Ry strug- 
gling against the wicked wiles of Satan, by following My command- 
ments, and by getting back the Panama Canal.” “Prayboy’s Purity 
Jokes” began with the following: “Seems two liberals went back to 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


her place and indulged in fornication. Just as the two sinners reached 
that moment of sexual union which is only permitted in holy matri- 
mony, a truck crashed into her house and killed them dead and they 
both went to hell.” A highlight of the mock issue was its centerfold, 
“Mrs. December,” Norma-Beth Ewan, who posed in a pink housecoat 
with her five children under a sampler reading “Stand by Your Man.” 
Her data sheet noted that turnoffs included “people who call me Ms. 
and the UN”; her favorite books were Deuteronomy and The Joy of 
Cooking ; her favorite musician was Lawrence Welk. 10 

But Hefners maneuvers, like those of the Democratic Party, 
had little impact as Beagan crushed President Jimmy Carter in the 
1980 election. This dawning of a new political age would reshape 
American public life in profound ways for the next quarter cen- 
tury. In the process, Hefner and Playboy became identified, by all 
sides, as the antichrist of the newly triumphant conservatism. With 
the battle lines clearly drawn, the only question concerned when all- 
out war would begin. 

The Beagan Bevolution was accompanied by a second discomfit- 
ing development for Playboy that same year — the publication of a 
controversial book that placed Hefner and his magazine at the center 
of a cultural firestorm. For the better part of the 1970s, fueled by 
a $3.8 million advance for publication and movie rights, noted “New 
Journalist” Gay Talese had been engaged in a book project examin- 
ing Americas sexual revolution. Amid intense press interest, Talese 
explored the changing sexual landscape as a participant observer 
who delved into X-rated movies, massage parlors, erotic literature, 
infidelity and experimentation, swinging, and controversial new sexual 
resorts and clubs such as Plato’s Betreat and Sandstone. The result 
was Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a volume that appeared to tremendous 
fanfare in 1980. Through a wealth of descriptive stories, the book 
suggested that since midcentury, Americans gradually had aban- 
doned taboos to embrace a new ethic of sexual freedom. A liberated 
atmosphere had been created, Talese concluded, by “Americas new 
openness about sex, its expanding erotic consumerism, and the quiet 
rebellion . . . within the middle class against the censors and clerics 
that had been an inhibiting force since the founding of the Puritan 
republic.” 11 

Hefner appeared as a central figure in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. 
Talese had spent a good deal of time interviewing the publisher and 



THE DARK DECADE 


329 


hanging out at the Playboy Mansion, and he presented Hefners life 
as emblematic of the sweeping liberation of American sexual values 
since the 1950s. In the three long biographical sections, Talese exam- 
ined Hefner’s childhood, the early stages of his career with Playboy, 
and his more recent endeavors, particularly the tangled romance 
with Barbi Benton and Karen Christy and the drug scandal that 
took Bobbie Arnstein’s life. Full of colorful anecdotes and striking 
prose, Talese ’s biographical account suggested Hefners success dem- 
onstrated that “Americans everywhere were becoming increasingly 
tolerant of, if not preoccupied with, various forms of sexual expres- 
sion.” At the same time, Talese portrayed the publisher as a rest- 
less, isolated, immature, somewhat neurotic figure whose search for 
happiness remained unfulfilled. 12 

While Thy Neighbor’s Wife quickly moved onto the best-seller 
lists, it proved a huge critical disappointment. Reviewers generally 
found it to be a tedious, sanctimonious, even grim account written 
by a zealot for the cause of sexual liberation. “Dull as a double-feature 
of x-rated movies,” said one. “ Thy Neighbors Wife read like a his- 
tory of the Soviet Union written by Leonid Brezhnev,” said another. 
Critics complained that Talese presented sex as a form of physical 
gymnastics devoid of emotional meaning or human connection, and 
dismissed the book as “the work of an undeniably aroused libido, but 
a limp mind.” 13 

Moreover, most reviewers concluded that the book distorted 
modern American sex life. The mass of ordinary Americans — those 
who “enjoy sex as a wonderful part of life but do not make it a cause 
celebre, who are neither appalled nor entranced by their bodies” — 
were ignored in favor of a tiny fringe of erotic experimenters. This 
focus on radical dissenters made the book appear anachronistic, a 
cultural relic from the age of “flower children and psychedelic drugs.” 
As one critic noted, “what might have been groundbreaking five years 
ago is now as moribund as poor Sandstone, which, although Talese 
typically neglects to mention it, is no longer open for business.” 14 

Ideology colored many of the evaluations. Liberal commentators 
scoffed at Talese s chauvinist focus on middle-aged men looking for 
action and his neglect of women, homosexuals, children, and many 
others impacted by the changing social mores of the sexual revo- 
lution. The more sophisticated, such as Alexander Cockbum, cited 
Michel Foucault and lectured Talese for ignoring the likelihood 



330 


MR. PLAYBOY 


that instead of striking a blow against the system, “the ruses of 
sexuality” constituted merely another form of subjugation in late 
capitalist society. Conservatives were even more hostile, portraying 
Thy Neighbors Wife as a manifesto for social recklessness. Talese, 
they complained, simply ignored the heavy social costs of the sexual 
revolution: the undermining of love, marriage, and the family struc- 
ture and an increase in divorce, venereal disease, abortions, teenage 
pregnancies, and the sexual exploitation of females. His own stories 
confirmed that the sexual revolution produced mostly “emotional 
impoverishment and desperate boredom,” wrote one reviewer. 
“Perhaps the merit of Thy Neighbor’s Wife is that it laid bare the 
desolate spectacle .” 15 

Hefner was caught in the critical crossfire. Many commentators 
skewered Mr. Playboy as the supreme symbol of the shallow sexual 
hijinks described in this overblown book . 16 Far from being a social 
revolutionary, Hefner appeared to most reviewers as an overgrown 
adolescent committed mainly to his own pleasure. The publisher 
and his ilk, according to one, were “distressingly shallow,” with “self- 
gratification their only concern.” Ellen Goodman ridiculed Hefner and 
his acolytes for being “pathetically stuck in the traditional male mode; 
stuck in sad old fantasies; stuck as eternal adolescents proving they can 
do what mommy told them was naughty .” 17 Critics took special aim at 
Hefner s life at the mansion, which they characterized as a portrait in 
insipidity: the publisher “on his circular rotating bed, surrounded by 
half a dozen nude bunnies, each one of whom is gently massaging him 
with oil, while a TV camera records the love session for future refer- 
ence and his butler stands by to play and replay ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’” 
As one critic concluded derisively, this “adolescent utopia” consisted of 
“bunnies, backgammon, and Pepsi-Cola — what a life .” 18 

Hefner, too, was unhappy with Talese s depiction of him. He com- 
plained that the book underplayed his crucial role in the sexual revolu- 
tion while wildly distorting his romantic escapades. Talese also made 
him appear frustrated and unhappy, Hefner groused, when in fact 
he loved his life. A hostile review in Playboy caused Talese to con- 
clude that Hefner was out to get him, and Hefner only confused mat- 
ters when he agreed that his magazine s assessment of Thy Neighbor’s 
Wife was unfair. “I’m sorry that it ever appeared in Playboy,” he said 
publicly, while in a private note he apologized to Talese for the review 
not only because it “attempts to trivialize an important work, but 



THE DARK DECADE 


331 


because I think Playboy should applaud any serious effort of this sort 
that attempts to humanize our sexuality.” 19 

Ultimately, the intellectual street fight prompted by the publica- 
tion of Thy Neighbors Wife in 1980 left Hefner bruised. He and 
Talese appeared as partners in cultural crime, as hucksters peddling 
an elixir of “liberated” sexuality brewed in the Swinging Seventies. 
Observers of every ideological stripe interpreted their message of 
sexual freedom not as inspirational, but as an embarrassing exercise 
in juvenile, narcissistic hedonism. Caught between a conservative 
Scylla, who loathed him for his undermining of traditional morality, 
and a progressive Charybdis, who scorned him for failing to replace 
it with anything meaningful, the Playboy publisher found himself in 
an increasingly isolated position. Symbolically, Thy Neighbors Wife 
seemed to bring the curtain down on the drama of sexual insurrection 
played out during the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the audience turned 
away, more from distaste than hostility. 

However jarring Reagans election and Talese s book were in 1980, 
they receded before the upheaval caused by Dorothy Stratten s tragic 
murder that same year. This horrible event struck very close to home, 
traumatizing Hefner personally and throwing his circle of friends and 
associates at the mansion into an emotional tailspin. He had known 
the young woman well, and entertained high hopes for her success, 
and her senseless killing unnerved him. To make matters worse, as 
details gradually emerged about the train of events leading to her 
death, a troubling picture emerged — of rapid, dazzling success leav- 
ing a vapor trail of manipulation and frustration, marital infidelity and 
frustrated ambition, jealousy and sadistic revenge. 

Stratten first arrived at the Playboy Mansion West in 1978 at age 
eighteen, a gorgeous but unsophisticated girl who had never been 
on an airplane before. Born and raised in Vancouver, Dorothy Ruth 
Hoogstraten came from a difficult family background. Abandoned 
by her father, the girl and her family had lived in a succession of 
rough neighborhoods, supported by her mothers labors as a house- 
keeper, before finally securing a house in a working-class suburb. At 
age fourteen, Dorothy began working at the Dairy Queen to help 
pay the bills and gain a bit of spending money. Within a couple of 
years, the tall, skinny, awkward girl began to fill out, with her Dutch 
heritage producing a striking physical package of blond hair, blue 
eyes, high cheekbones, and a voluptuous figure. During her senior 



332 


MR. PLAYBOY 


year in high school, the young beauty met Paul Snider, the man who 
would become the central figure in her short life. He came into the 
Dairy Queen one afternoon, driving a Datsun sports coupe, wearing 
a long fur coat and lizardskin boots with spurs, and flashing a variety 
of gaudy rings and neck chains. Struck by his blond waitress, he got 
her phone number and after several tries procured a date. 20 

Snider was a small-time hustler who had dropped out of school as 
a teenager. Variously a pimp, car show promoter, and narcotics dealer, 
he saw in Stratten both a romantic prospect and a potential meal 
ticket. Perceiving the beauty blooming beneath the dowdy clothes 
and sweet temperament, he quickly set himself to winning the young 
blonde s devotion. Over the objections of her family, Snider wooed 
Stratten romantically, showering her with presents and impressing 
her with inflated talk about his career. A Svengali figure, he chose her 
clothes and makeup while looking for an opportunity to market 
her striking beauty. His chance appeared in the summer of 1978. 21 

As part of Playboy’s Great Playmate Hunt to find a centerfold 
for its twenty- fifth anniversary issue, the Vancouver photographer 
Ken Honey, who had discovered several Canadian Playmates over 
the years, was scouting for prospective candidates. Snider convinced 
Stratten to go for a test shoot, and after the session Honey sent about 
a dozen color shots to Marilyn Grabowski, Playboy’s photo editor in 
Los Angeles. Struck immediately, Grabowski called Honey and had 
him arrange a flight for Stratten to Los Angeles while she set up a 
shoot with glamour photographer Mario Casilli. Snider was annoyed 
because it had been arranged for Stratten to travel alone, but he 
relented and his girlfriend set off on the adventure of her life. 22 

Stratten s shoot went beautifully, and for several days she resided 
at the guesthouse at the Playboy Mansion. Although overwhelmed by 
the stately residence and nervous at meeting Hefner and mingling 
with celebrities, the young woman made a memorable impression 
with her sweet temperament and good looks. Grabowski assured her 
that a Playmate appearance was certain, so Stratten flew home to 
Vancouver, quit her job, and returned to Los Angeles for an extended 
stay at the mansion. Snider, suspicious that Dorothy was slipping away 
from him, called three or four times a day to Stratten, Grabowski, and 
Casilli. When the photographer and his crew accompanied Stratten 
back to Vancouver to do some location shots, Snider met them at the 
airport in a rented limousine and snapped, “You guys take the cab. 



THE DARK DECADE 


333 


The limo is for Dorothy and me.” He began to pressure Stratten to 
get married, and after much hesitation she reluctantly agreed to an 
engagement. The couple moved to Los Angeles. 23 

Stratten began a magical rise. She came in second for Playboy’s 
twenty-fifth anniversary Playmate — primarily because of her 
inexperience — but was slated to appear as the August 1979 Playmate. 
Meanwhile, she and Snider took up residence in a small Westwood 
apartment. Stratten worked as a Bunny in the Los Angeles Playboy 
Club and took acting lessons, and he pushed several unsuccessful 
promotional schemes: wet T-shirt contests, male strippers, a “hand- 
somest man in LA” contest. In June 1979, she succumbed to Sniders 
pressure and married him in Las Vegas, having told Grabowski, “I owe 
it to him. I was a nobody when he found me.” A few weeks later, with 
her Playmate issue on sale, Stratten signed with an agent and secured 
several small parts in films and television shows. She appeared promi- 
nently in the October 1979 ABC broadcast The Playboy Roller Disco 
and Pajama Party. Selected as the 1980 Playmate of the Year, Stratten 
won the title role in the feature film Galaxina, a science fiction satire, 
a few weeks later. 24 

Throughout this period, Stratten and Snider drew contrasting 
reactions at the mansion. Hefner and his friends loved her and, uni- 
versally, viewed him as a “creep.” Snider, with his satin shirts, flashy 
gold chains, mink coat, and grandiose manners, alienated those with 
whom he tried to ingratiate himself. Hefner, who had become some- 
thing of a father figure to Stratten, loathed Snider on sight and had 
him checked out with the Vancouver police. He urged the young 
woman to avoid rushing into marriage, even when she asked him to 
give her away at the wedding, and banned him from the mansion 
grounds unless he was with Stratten. 25 

As Stratten s prospects soared, Sniders hold over her unraveled. 
His various plans to market her image — a poster of her roller skat- 
ing in a skimpy outfit, a perfume, a photo book — floundered even 
as he became more insistent on handling her financial affairs. He 
commandeered her income, pocketing most of her paychecks and 
purchasing a Mercedes 450SE for his own use while she drove a 
1967 Mercury Cougar. Such high-handed treatment finally alienated 
his wife, who hired her own financial manager, Bobert Houston. He 
set up Dorothy Stratten Enterprises, and thereafter her income was 
deposited into a corporate account from which she, but not Snider, 



334 


MR. PLAYBOY 


could withdraw funds. Only a monthly stipend was placed in a joint 
checking account. An infuriated Snider bullied and berated Stratten 
to tears and the relationship crumbled. 26 

Tensions reached a crisis point when Peter Bogdanovich, one of 
Hollywood’s hottest young directors, chose Stratten for a part in his 
new film, They All Laughed, a romantic comedy with John Ritter, 
Ben Gazzara, and Audrey Hepburn. They had met at the mansion 
and Bogdanovich had asked her to read for the part. Smitten by her 
beauty and impressed with her acting instincts, he had put her in 
the film in the part of the love interest for Ritter. In March 1980, 
Stratten flew off to New York City for several weeks of shooting and, 
unbeknownst to everyone, began an affair with Bogdanovich. By all 
accounts, the two fell in love and Stratten determined finally to end 
her relationship with Snider. First, she asked for a separation in a 
letter, writing, “I want to be free. Let the bird fly. If you love me, 
you’ll let me go.” In June, she saw an attorney and declared their 
physical and financial separation, even though she wanted to arrange 
a generous monetary settlement for Snider. 27 

Her husband reacted with rage and desperation. He hired a 
private detective to tail his wife and Bogdanovich, trying to get evi- 
dence for an alienation-of-affections lawsuit. He badgered Houston, 
demanding cash outlays and threatening to sue for half of his wife’s 
future income. Stratten, determined to have an amicable parting, met 
with Snider in late July to discuss a divorce settlement. She agreed to 
meet him again on August 14. Meanwhile, Snider purchased a sec- 
ondhand twelve-gauge Mossberg shotgun and a box of shells. Stratten 
came to the house that they once shared about noon. Later that eve- 
ning, after several phone calls to Snider went unanswered, friends 
entered the abode and found two naked bodies and blood every- 
where. Snider had shot Stratten point-blank in the side of the head 
before turning the gun on himself. He also had sexually assaulted her, 
both before and after her death. The next morning, the Los Angeles 
Times headline blared out news of the horrifying murder- suicide: 
“Playmate of Year Slain.” 28 

This dreadful episode generated shock waves that buffeted Hefner 
and the Playboy empire. A chorus of criticism described Stratten as a 
victim of the publisher’s exploitative media machine. “It’s time some- 
one takes a good hard look behind the glamorous facade of Hugh 
Hefner and the Playboy organization,” declared an indignant letter to 



THE DARK DECADE 


335 


a Los Angeles newspaper. Another critic accused Playboy of creating 
an atmosphere in which sleazy characters such as Snider flourished. 
“If there had been no market for pictures of her, perhaps there would 
have been no beginning to the ‘meal ticket’ philosophy that led to her 
death,” he argued. “Hefner created both the Playmate dream and the 
deadly nightmare.” 29 

Feminists blasted Hefner and Playboy for nurturing an exploit- 
ative attitude toward women. About three months after the murder, 
for instance, Teresa Carpenter published “Death of a Playmate” in 
the Village Voice, an article that was reprinted in many newspapers 
and would go on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. 
She argued that three men had sought to use Stratten for their own 
ends — Hefner, Bogdanovich, and Snider — and that while the latter 
had pulled the trigger, all bore responsibility for the tragedy. The young 
woman, she wrote, had been the “catalyst for a cycle of ambitions which 
revealed its players less wicked, perhaps, than pathetic.” Her critique 
of Hefner and his magazine was searing. Stratten was a “corporate 
treasure,” argued Carpenter, whom Playboy, which had never really 
produced a major actress, “thought was going to be the biggest thing 
they ever had,” while Hefner hoped to gain legitimacy in Hollywood 
by creating a star, a “Marion Davies to call his own.” Snider, the author 
continued, had been a pitiful creature of the Playboy ethos: 

The irony that Hefner does not perceive — or at least fails to 
acknowledge — is that Stratten was destroyed not by random 
particulars, but by a germ breeding within the [Playboy] 
ethic. One of the tacit tenets of the Playboy philosophy — that 
women can be possessed — had found a fervent adherent in 
Paul Snider. He had bought the dream without qualification, 
and he thought of himself as perhaps one of Playboy’s most 
honest apostles. He acted out dark fantasies never intended 
to be realized. 

Snider, Carpenter claimed, did what many male readers of Playboy 
probably yearned to do: “instead of fondling himself in private, instead 
of wreaking abstract violence upon a centerfold, he ravaged a play- 
mate in the flesh.” 30 

A horrified Hefner denied that Playboy had exploited Stratten. 
“To whatever degree Playboy may have benefited, Dorothy benefited 



336 


MR. PLAYBOY 


a great deal more, and would have continued to benefit a great deal 
more,” he passionately insisted. “The next film she was reading for 
and likely would have gotten would have brought her $100,000 and 
without question, the happiest time of her life was in that last year, 
year and a half.” He reminded listeners that Snider had a record of 
abusive behavior toward Stratten. Hefner also threw himself into a 
long article on Stratten s life for Playboy, large sections of which he 
personally rewrote and shaped in the first extensive writing he had 
done since the Playboy Philosophy two decades earlier. The piece 
contended that Playboy had consistently promoted the lifting of female 
subjugation — “economically, socially, sexually” — and Snider was “a very 
sick guy” who “couldn’t stand to see Dorothy become an independent 
human being, with a mind of her own, a body of her own, a life of her 
own.” As for the Carpenter article, it was “a viciously anti-Playboy, 
anti-male diatribe” that “fabricated facts . . . and invented imaginary 
motivations.” Hefner also pointed out that Carpenter had sold the 
motion picture rights to her article to the director Bob Fosse, who 
would go on to make Star 80, for more than $125,000. “So much for 
the exploitation of Dorothy Stratten,” he concluded. 31 

Stratten s death, and the public reaction to it, hurt Hefner deeply. 
It joined Bobbie Arnstein’s suicide as one of the most “irrational, 
painful, horrifying” events of his life, he said later. In concert with the 
Reagan election and the Talese contretemps, it also portended 
the beginning of a grim era for Hefner and Playboy. Increasingly, he 
appeared cornered into an isolated position in the broader culture. 
Reviled by the newly triumphant conservative movement, the pub 
lisher and his magazine also were increasingly unwelcome among the 
progressives whose ranks he yearned to lead. These dispiriting devel- 
opments, in fact, introduced a protracted decade of travail for Hefner 
in the 1980s. As soon became apparent, the troubling events of 1980 
took place against a backdrop of larger financial problems that brought 
Playboy Enterprises, Inc., to the precipice of collapse. 32 


II 


On October 14, 1980, a euphoric Victor Lownes strode out of a 
London courtroom. More than a year earlier, as head of Playboy 
Enterprises Inc.’s enormously profitable gaming operation, he had 



THE DARK DECADE 


337 


engineered the purchase of the Victoria Sporting Club in London. 
The acquisition had made Playboy the biggest gambling enterprise in 
Britain. But English officials had thrown up a temporary roadblock, 
denying Playboy a gaming license for the facility because of illegal 
activity by the previous owners. In an appeal before a London court, 
however, Playboy attorneys successfully argued that the company’s 
unblemished reputation would produce a strict adherence to all gam- 
ing rules. After the license was granted, an exultant Lownes cabled 
the good news to Hefner in Los Angeles. In the manner of Julius 
Caesar’s famous report on his conquest of Gaul (Veni, vidi, vici: “I 
came, I saw, I conquered”), Lownes wrote, “victoria victorious, 

VISION VINDICATED, VALUE VERIFIED, VERILY VICTOR .” 33 

Lowness elation appeared justified. Over the last fifteen years, the 
indubitable bad boy of PEI had built a gaming empire in England 
that profited both the company and himself. After functioning as a key 
operative in the growing Playboy organization in the 1950s, he had 
left the company for a time, then rejoined in 1964 after convincing 
Hefner to appoint him an officer in Playboy Clubs International and 
let him launch Playboy Clubs in England. When Britain regularized 
gambling laws with the 1968 Gaming Act, Lownes took full advantage. 
Within a few years he had established casinos at the Playboy Club 
and the posh Clermont Club in London, opened Playboy casinos in 
Portsmouth and Manchester, and created a web of betting shops and 
bingo parlors around the country. 34 

Throughout the 1970s, as the general financial fortunes of PEI 
declined, those of its English gaming division soared. Much of it came 
from an influx of Arab oil money as Saudis, in particular, flocked to 
London to indulge a fondness for gambling. Lownes welcomed them 
into the Playboy casinos, and soon it was not uncommon to see wealthy 
Arabs lose $500,000 in a single night’s activity. In fiscal 1980, the Wall 
Street Journal calculated, the English Playboy casinos accounted for 
85 percent of the company’s earnings. As the new decade opened, 
financial analysts agreed that PEI’s English gaming was keeping the 
company afloat. 35 

This tremendous success made Victor Lownes the talk of English 
society. As the highest-paid executive in Britain — his yearly salary 
of $600,000 per year was larger than that of PEI’s president, Derick 
Daniels — he rubbed shoulders with many of England’s rich and 
famous. In 1972 he purchased a country estate, Stocks, about an hour 



338 


MR. PLAYBOY 


from London, that became the setting for a flamboyant and highly 
publicized lifestyle. Its stately mansion with nineteen bedrooms, 
four cottages, several outbuildings, and a stable, soon saw the addi- 
tion of tennis and squash courts, a whirlpool and Jacuzzi, a pinball 
arcade, and a swimming pool. Lownes became an avid fox hunter 
and participated in high-society horse events with the likes of Prince 
Charles. On weekends he hosted a perpetual party at Stocks attended 
by actors, musicians, writers, and celebrities such as Peter Sellers, 
Roman Polanski, Peter Cook, and members of Monty Python. The 
estate also functioned as a Bunny training school for the clubs and 
casinos, which meant that PEI covered many of the estate’s oper- 
ating costs. The constant presence of dozens of attractive young 
women at Stocks contributed to Lownes s legendary love life. By the 
1970s, the PEI executive had created a lavish social scene that rivaled 
Hefners. 36 

Then Lownes fell victim to his own hubris. In late 1979, he moved 
against Playboys biggest competitor in British gaming, Ladbrokes 
Ltd., headed by the powerful businessman Cyril Stein. A series 
of investigative reports detailing unethical and illegal activity at 
Ladbrokes had appeared in a British magazine, and during the result- 
ing uproar Lownes decided to play the reformer. He formally chal- 
lenged the renewal of his competitor s gambling license and helped 
force Ladbrokes out of the gambling business. A furious Stein prom- 
ised retaliation, and he kept his promise. A few weeks later, police 
and Gaming Board inspectors raided Playboy casinos in London and 
confiscated records and files. Stein, it turned out, had paid informers 
to reveal improprieties in the Playboy operation — giving free club 
membership to hotel porters who steered wealthy guests to Playboy 
casinos, accepting false checks from wealthy gamblers to extend them 
credit, and allowing company directors to gamble in their own facility. 
There were also accusations that wealthy Arabs had procured Bunnies 
for their friends. The police and the Gaming Board announced that 
they would challenge the renewal of Playboys gambling license 
because of such improprieties. 37 

As this crisis escalated, Hefner, along with Derick Daniels and 
corporate managers in Chicago, grew increasingly worried. In late 
March they summoned Lownes to a special meeting at the mansion 
in Los Angeles to discuss matters. He offered breezy reassurances 
that his reputation for honest management would prevail, but was 



THE DARK DECADE 


339 


rather unconvincing, partly because he was still groggy after suffering 
a serious concussion in a horseback riding accident. Meanwhile, law- 
yers and business experts in England told Hefner and Daniels that 
the situation was beginning to unravel. Complicating matters was 
the fact that Lownes and Daniels were engaged in a corporate power 
struggle wi t hin PEI. Lownes believed that profits from his division 
were supporting inept corporate management in Chicago, while 
Daniels contended that the English operation had been functioning 
independently without any kind of corporate control from PEI. 38 

Finally, after several weeks of deliberation and conferences, 
Hefner decided to act. Convinced that loss of English casino revenue 
would scuttle PEI, and told by the company’s English counsel that 
Lowness continued presence made that inevitable, he sent Daniels to 
London to ask the company’s chief of operations in England to resign on 
April 15, 1981. A furious Lownes stalked out of the meeting. He told 
the press that his sacking was “stupid” and “an absurdity” and lashed 
out at PEI management as small-minded bureaucrats who spent their 
time “sorting through Social Security numbers and personnel files.” 
In a bitter letter to Hefner, he accused Daniels and his team of con- 
cocting a “plan to destroy my reputation in order to realize their 
inordinate ambition to take over the gaming operations and thereby 
justify their existence.” 39 

Hefner stuck to his guns. “Your suggestion that all this is some 
sort of corporate plot to ruin your reputation is simply untrue and 
ignores the most obvious facts of the situation,” he wrote to Lownes. 
He defended his decision as in the best interests of the company. 
The decision to fire Lownes, he stated in a press conference, was a 
painful one because of their long friendship but “the only appropri- 
ate action.” He admitted that losing its British gaming license would 
present “a very serious problem” for PEI, but insisted that the objec- 
tions were minor and could be resolved. 40 

Hefner’s optimism proved misplaced. PEI scrambled to salvage 
the situation by hiring Sir John Treacher, a British businessman and 
former admiral in the Royal Navy, to replace Lownes. The move back- 
fired. The Gaming Board saw it as proof that the American parent 
company controlled its British operation, and foreign control of casinos 
in England was prohibited by the Gaming Act. As a result, British 
magistrates decided against Playboy in an initial licensing hearing 
in early October, ruling that the company was “not fit.” Less than a 



340 


MR. PLAYBOY 


month later, PEI announced the sale of its entire English gambling 
operation to a British company for only $31.4 million, which experts 
calculated to be about one-tenth of its value. The whole situation was 
a disaster, an analyst told the Wall Street Journal: “The loss of two- 
thirds of your earnings is never a pleasant prospect.” 41 

But the London debacle prefaced an even larger financial calamity 
for PEI. The company had bet much of its future on a huge casino 
project in Atlantic City, taking advantage of a 1976 referendum that 
legalized gambling on the boardwalk. PEI joined with the Elsinore 
Corporation to build a huge hotel-casino, and in early 1979, con- 
struction began on a twenty-four-story, five-hundred-room gambling 
palace that would cost some $135 million over the next two years. 
According to Business Week, the company had invested “half its 
total equity” in the project, but with after-tax profits predicted to be 
around $30 million a year, Hefner, PEI president Derick Daniels, and 
Victor Lownes deemed it a sound investment. 42 

Many outsiders, however, thought it was a risky venture. They 
pointed out that strict regulations on advertising, fierce competition 
among existing casinos in Atlantic City, and a slumping American 
economy dimmed the chances for success. Playboys past history — 
failures with movies, books, and records and evaporating profits in its 
clubs and resorts — also inspired little confidence that its expansion 
into gambling would thrive. In the opinion of one business journal, 
Playboys plans in Atlantic City “seem about as chancy as Hefners 
earlier efforts turned out to be.” 43 

The collapse of Playboys gambling operation in England pro- 
vided the first sign of trouble. The director of the state s Division 
of Gaming Enforcement demanded that Lownes and three of his 
managers step aside from any involvement in Atlantic City before a 
temporary operating permit would be granted. They did so, the per- 
mit was granted, and the Playboy Hotel and Casino began temporary 
operation in early April. Hefner even visited the new facility later 
in the month, arriving like a “conquering emperor,” in the words of 
the local newspaper. But the English failure clouded the future. 
“I find it very difficult to believe that a company that is unlicensable 
in another jurisdiction would be licensable in New Jersey,” noted a 
business analyst in the Wall Street Journal. 44 

In November 1981, the Division of Gaming Enforcement decided 
to oppose Playboys request for a permanent gambling license. 



THE DARK DECADE 


341 


It cited concerns about several episodes in the history of Hefners 
organization: the old canard about payments to the New York State 
Liquor Authority in the early 1960s, the Bobbie Arnstein drug inves- 
tigation in the early 1970s, the loss of the London licenses, and the 
false change that led Hefner s hiring of a Chicago attorney with links 
to organized crime. Hefner and PEI management were stunned, hav- 
ing expected a smooth road to approval. Now hearings before the 
New Jersey Casino Control Commission were scheduled for January 
1982, and license approval would require the approval of four of the 
five commissioners. 45 

Playboys Atlantic City casino and, perhaps, its future as a com- 
pany hung in the balance as Hefner journeyed to Atlantic City to 
appear as the first witness. His testimony, as the public symbol of the 
corporation, would be crucial. But when the publisher arrived on 
January 11 for his first day of questioning, things unfolded inauspi- 
ciously. He entered in the company of Shannon Tweed, a tall, stun- 
ning blonde who was a recent Playmate and his current girlfriend, 
and she attracted more attention than he did. Dressed in a blue busi- 
ness suit and tie, Hefner looked weary. In fact, he had been up much 
of the night fighting with Tweed, and had popped a couple of dexies 
to stay awake. 46 

Hefner s testimony was a disaster. Later he decried his treatment 
as “the Atlantic City Inquisition,” but much of the problem resulted 
from lack of preparation. States attorney James Flanagan ques- 
tioned the publisher on several matters — particularly the payments 
PEI made to New York officials in the early 1960s to get a liquor 
license for the New York Playboy Club. Hefner explained, correctly, 
that they had been a response to extortion rather than an attempt at 
bribery, but was unable to recall whether he had been granted immu- 
nity in the grand jury inquiry and could not remember salient events 
and policies. When questioned about the London casino collapse, 
he confessed that “inappropriate and improper” things had been 
done in England that “we did not know about.” When asked about 
innocent business relationships with Joe DeCarlo and John Dante, 
friends with shady reputations, he was unable to recollect details 
about their dealings. Throughout, Hefner referred to having only 
“islands of recollection” and professed ignorance about ranking 
officials and major events in his company’s history. Once, unable to 
recall some point, he tried to joke, “Ask me whom I was dating.” 



342 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Under pressure, he also admitted that he had not even read the DGE 
report before testifying. 47 

Hefners inept performance proved fatal. A seasoned observer of 
these hearings told the press that “never before had he seen a casino 
executive so ill-prepared, so unable to answer basic facts about his 
company.” The commissioners voted to deny Playboy and Hefner the 
permanent license, deeming them “unfit and unwelcome to operate a 
casino in New Jersey.” Three of the commissioners voted in favor of 
the license, recognizing that PETs payments to the liquor authority 
had been the result of extortion. But two voted no, describing Hefner’s 
testimony as “insincere” and denouncing him for “a failure ... to 
exhibit the forthright candor he had to display.” Flanagan agreed that 
“Hefner was a terrible witness” and observed that when he admitted 
that he had not bothered to read the investigative report into his own 
company, it was the beginning of the end. Hefner had been done in 
not by corruption or dishonesty — his personal ethics were impec- 
cable — but by his absence from the company he had started. 48 

The decision sent Hefner and PEI reeling. While the commis- 
sion had left an opening — the company could still gain the license 
if it presented a plan to divorce itself from Hefner — such a course 
was unthinkable. Thus PEI arranged to sell its interest in the casino 
and hotel to the Elsinore Corporation for $58.5 million, with only 
$7.6 million coming in cash while the balance was covered by an 
unsecured note. The Atlantic City fire sale was a devastating blow 
that drained funds, sent company stock plunging, and cut off future 
revenues. Many outsiders thought PEI might collapse entirely. 49 

As financial fallout from this disaster rained down, Hefner took a 
drastic measure to save his enterprise. Three weeks after the denial 
of the Atlantic City gambling license, he called in Derick Daniels 
and asked him to resign. “Fine, Hef. If that’s what you think, that’s 
what we’re going to do,” Daniels replied. With typical flamboyance, 
he departed the meeting in his white leather jumpsuit, climbed into 
a chauffeured Mercedes, and was driven to the opera as he sipped 
champagne from a bottle wrapped in a white towel. Daniels’s easy 
acceptance of the decision came in part from a generous severance 
package of $470,000. But it also came from knowledge that Hefner 
already had a replacement in mind — his eldest child, Christie, age 
twenty-nine. On April 28, 1982, she became the new president of 
Playboy Enterprises, Inc. 50 



THE DARK DECADE 


343 


III 

Christie Hefner had joined PEI in 1975 as a “special assistant” to 
her father following graduation from Brandeis, where the English 
major had been selected for Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa 
cum laude. She took on several projects over the next few years. She 
operated Playtique, a boutique in the Playboy Building, managed 
public relations for the yearlong twenty-fifth anniversary celebration 
of Playboy, and chaired the New Publications Group, a company 
committee charged with evaluating new magazine opportunities. 
According to Daniels, when he became president in 1976, it was 
understood that training Christie was part of his charge. By 1978 
she had became a corporate vice president and publisher of a pair of 
Playboy consumer guides. While none of these early projects were 
rousing successes, the younger Hefner gained plaudits throughout 
PEI for her incisive intelligence, articulate manner, and attention 
to business detail. “In contrast to ‘lief,’ she has an affinity for bal- 
ance sheets, a tolerance for daylight office hours, and a gregarious 
personality,” Fortune noted. Thus she stood poised to take control of 
the company as the “Hare Apparent,” and the casino catastrophes 
of 1981-1982 cleared the path for her to step in. 51 

Christie brought several compelling attributes to the table. First, she 
enjoyed the full trust of her father. While he had been far from an ideal 
parent, leaving his wife and children in the mid-1950s, he stayed on good 
terms with Millie after their divorce and maintained regular contact 
with his children, Christie and David, and supported them and their 
mother financially. In Millie’s words, her daughter accepted Hugh as “a 
self-involved but feeling person” and enjoyed her occasional visits to 
the Chicago mansion. While the relationship was somewhat distant, 
Christie admired her father for his intelligence, kindness, and progres- 
sive social views. Many long talks during her adolescence strength- 
ened the bond to her father. Midway through college, she decided to 
change her name back to Hefner, which touched him deeply — her 
name had been altered when her mother remarried — and father and 
daughter grew steadily closer. After asking her to join the company, Hugh 
clearly began to see her as his successor. “She has the qualities I’m look- 
ing for. Intelligence, creativity, good communication with me, a good 
natural leadership style, and a high profile that works to her advantage 
both inside and outside the company. She’s a good communicator,” 



344 


MR. PLAYBOY 


he told the press after appointing her president. To friends and 
associates, the delighted publisher often commented, “If Christie 
didn’t exist, Playboy’s promotion department might want to invent 
her.” Many observers shared his confidence, with one publication 
describing her as “a no-nonsense executive who was fast becoming 
the Katharine Graham of the Midwest.” 52 

Christie Hefner also offered another attractive asset. As a talented, 
ambitious, and articulate woman, she helped negate the feminist accu- 
sation that Playboy embodied sexism and misogyny. In fact, soon after 
joining PEI she became the leading spokesperson for a new Playboy 
that was sensitive to womens rights. Possessing a savvy political sensi- 
bility — particularly influenced by her mother s Democratic activism, 
she had grown up campaigning for Hubert Humphrey and Illinois 
senator Paul Douglas — she was a Jimmy Carter delegate to the 1980 
Democratic Convention. She publicly backed the ERA and abortion 
rights with speeches and fund-raisers, causing Gloria Allred of NOW 
to praise her as “one of the most articulate, committed, hardworking 
feminists in the entire country.” She stood up to critics who insisted 
that Playboy exploited women. “Playboy has been more supportive of 
feminist politics and philosophies than most other companies I know 
of — in its attitude toward hiring and promotion of women, through 
its editorial and financial support of the Equal Rights Amendment 
and abortion,” she replied. “I think people who make the leap that 
because it chooses to picture women as sexually attractive, that some- 
how that goes hand in hand with thinking that women are stupid or 
women belong in the bedroom, are making a leap of faith that has 
nothing to do with the magazine.” 53 

PEPs new president needed every available ounce of talent, energy, 
and paternal support upon taking the helm in 1982. She faced a tall 
order. Ruffeted by falling stock prices, mounting losses, and predic- 
tions of a grim future, the company appeared in desperate straits. 
Christie embraced the most reasonable strategy available: push the 
company to divest itself of unprofitable projects and rebuild its base. 
In 1981, under Daniels, PEI had jettisoned the unprofitable Great 
Gorge and Lake Geneva resorts, and the younger Hefner continued 
down this path. She negotiated the sale of Playboy Rooks and insti- 
tuted stringent cost-cutting measures that slashed corporate over- 
head by some $8 million a year during her first few months in office. 
She also formulated plans to move the company into the new area 



THE DARK DECADE 


345 


of cable television and explored publishing a magazine for modem 
women. The younger Hefner announced publicly that she planned 
to concentrate on “the restructuring of Playboy from a broadly based 
corporation to a clearly focused communications company .” 54 

Hugh Hefner was pleased and relieved when his daughter tack- 
led the financial problems besetting his beloved enterprise. Her 
engagement eased his disengagement from the business aspects of 
PEI, which he found increasingly abhorrent. During the early stages 
of the London crisis, a frustrated Hefner had exploded: “Do you 
know what I really wish? I really wish that all of my executives could 
just . . . go . . . away . . . and the money would keep coming in!” He 
admitted to the Wall Street Journal that “the business world really 
doesn’t appeal to me” and made a curiously revealing confession in a 
nationally televised interview: “If I have a failure as a businessman, it 
probably is in the business area.” Hefner was delighted to pull back 
and focus on the big picture while his daughter handled the tough 
business details of running PEI . 55 

But a growing array of problems refused to release their grip 
on the publisher. Professionally, with the slamming of casino doors 
and the popping of critical sniper fire providing a threatening back- 
drop, Hefner and his assistants attempted to revamp his magazine 
and make it relevant for a new era. Personally, he showed signs of 
wanting to settle down in a more conventional romantic relationship. 
Neither project proved very successful. 



17 


The Party's Over 


I n August 1986, Hugh Hefner made the cover of Newsweek, but 
I in an unfortunate fashion. The long feature article, titled “The 
I Party’s Over,” announced that the Playboy empire was in shambles 
and about to collapse. Over the last couple of decades, it argued, 
the magazine had fallen from its pinnacle of hipness in American 
culture as “the publisher and America gradually drifted apart.” Now 
an array of political, economic, and social problems were pressing 
in from every direction. Clearly, the fun and games had ended as 
Hefner, “the Peter Pan of porn,” faced a challenge that threatened 
to overwhelm him: “figuring out where he and his vision fit into con- 
temporary society.” 1 

The Newsweek piece was distressingly typical. Criticism of the 
Playboy lifestyle built to a crescendo in the 1980s as Hefner and his 
magazine came under attack, it seemed, from every direction. In the 
media, among the critics, and for a popular audience that continued 
to shrink steadily, the publisher increasingly appeared as a pioneering 
cultural figure whose time had passed. 

But Hefner did not go gently into that good night. Along with 
his editors, he struggled to revamp Playboy and make it relevant 


346 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


347 


to a new age. In his private life, he sought to settle down in a 
traditional, one-on-one pairing in two successive relationships. But 
frustration mounted as the magazine spun its wheels, the company’s 
losses mounted, and his romantic life became subject to unprece- 
dented turbulence. For Hefner, a dark decade turned a deeper shade 
of black. 


I 

“It is Hefner bashing season,” Rolling Stone announced in 1986. 
A “disillusionment with Playboyism” had set in, observed the leading 
journal of Americas up-to-the-minute younger set. “Admiration and 
envy during Hefners ascendant, golden years . . . have given way to 
general distaste.” In the previous decade, with the waning of 1960s 
social activism and experimentation, Hefner had blunted criticism 
and regained some cultural purchase by channeling the introspec- 
tive energies of the Me Decade. But now a chorus of commentators 
pictured Playboy as not just wrongheaded or ideologically suspect, 
but something much worse: irrelevant. 2 

Much of the denunciation was familiar. Conservatives embold- 
ened by the Reagan ascendancy attacked Hefner and his magazine as 
agents of moral decay. Conservative Digest, for instance, reviled the 
publishers support of recreational sex, legalized drugs, abortion on 
demand, and homosexuality, contending that such ideas “have been 
destroying our society.” The rise of AIDS added a sense of looming 
threat as the sexual revolution pioneered by Hefner “has dissolved in 
confusion and disillusionment” with the spread of this deadly social 
disease, claimed the Chicago Tribune. Many critics added the familiar 
refrain of sexism. Both conservative defenders of the family and left- 
ist advocates of womens rights denounced what one critic described 
as Hefner s ethic of “woman as plaything.” “The feminist movement 
has raised a great deal of consciousness about the role of magazines 
such as Playboy ,” wrote one columnist. 3 

But the censure of the Playboy ethic in the 1980s was not confined 
to indignant conservatives and angry feminists. Liberals increasingly 
lined up to take their swings at Hefner as a faux liberator. In October 
1985, the New Republic published “Man of the Mansion,” a sarcastic 
assessment of “Hef the American Publishing Genius.” The Playboy 



348 


MR. PLAYBOY 


lifestyle never had meant much, it jeered, and now with his magazine 
in disarray, his company suffering from inertia, and his “fairly empty 
existence” at his Los Angeles mansion, “Hef the Letch” had revealed 
his success formula: “naked young girls that can arouse the fantasies 
of a whole lot of American men.” An accompanying Vint Lawrence 
cartoon showed a naked, scrawny Hefner with drooping bunny ears, 
pipe clenched in his teeth, surrounded by wilted flowers, empty fried- 
chicken boxes, and discarded Pepsi cans. 4 

An equally devastating portrait appeared in a liberal newspaper, the 
Los Angeles Times. Written by the veteran journalist Bella Stumbo, 
a three-part profile subtly pictured Hefner as a study in insipid, self- 
involved celebrity. The series began with a description of the dishev- 
eled, pajama-clad, pipe-smoking, Pepsi-sipping publisher as he sat 
in his study waiting to be interviewed: “The effect was not sexy. At 
57, Hefner looked like a middle-aged man who might have the flu.” 
Hefner, Stumbo reported, yearned to gain respect for his historic 
achievements, but her account offered little to warrant such recog- 
nition. A confirmed homebody with no real hobbies beyond playing 
games and watching old films, and no interest in seeing the world, 
the publisher was “a man who appears to neither want nor need an 
outlet for his own obvious intelligence.” When asked about people 
he admired, he named movie stars, but beyond Hollywood “Hefner 
was at a total loss.” While claiming that Playboy was a feminist publi- 
cation, he struggled to justify the Playmate Data Sheet and confessed 
that he didn’t like Playboy’s explicit photos but was forced to include 
them because of readers’ tastes. Stumbo concluded with a snapshot 
of the publisher at a mansion reception, complaining about the con- 
servative backlash against the sexual revolution as he smooched and 
nuzzled with his current twenty-one-year-old girlfriend. 5 

Such attacks at least took Hefner and Playboy seriously. More dis- 
tressing were the dismissals that pictured him as obsolete — the victim 
of the sexual openness characteristic of modem American life. Still 
fighting battles against phantom opponents, said one, “Hugh Hefner 
is an anachronism in our time.” Newsweek callously noted Playboy’s 
appeal to aging Baby Boomers, with ads picturing bald men with the 
acclamation “Why Hair Transplantation Works.” Even the journalist 
Bob Greene, an old Hefner ally, noted that twenty years ago “guys 
my age used to breathlessly await Playboy’s arrival in the mail every 
month. Now, in our sex-inundated society, Playboy is passe, even 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


349 


irrelevant.” As another critic concluded, Playboy was “as relevant 
today as a Nehru jacket.” 6 

For many, Hefners personal lifestyle seemed to embody this 
obsolescence. Increasingly, critics depicted his mansion activities 
as frivolous, dissipated, or even worse, an eye-rolling throwback to 
the rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s. Hefner had become “sort of 
an anachronism with his pipe and smoking jacket,” sadly observed 
Greene. The publishers cloistered regimen, once a source of mystery, 
now “resembles nothing so much as a study in terminal depression,” 
asserted Martin Amis. Even Hefners legendary love life now seemed 
distasteful to many. “Give us a break,” one commentator snapped. 
“A 60-year-old man running around with a 20-year-old girl — who 
wants to read that.” Even Playboy insiders contributed to the dam- 
age, with editor Nat Lehrman confessing, “Hefner is 60 and obviously 
out of touch.” 7 

The closing of many Playboy Clubs in the mid-1980s brought a 
flood of obituaries. Initiated by Christie Hefner as part of her crusade 
to prune unprofitable PEI projects, the shuttering of Playboy estab- 
lishments in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and several other cities 
seemed to underline the pastness of the Playboy ethos. The picture of 
“grown women in bunny suits and grown men in pajamas began to look 
more and more ridiculous,” asserted one newspaper. In the wake of 
feminism, the clubs appeared as a relic of “post-war American sexism, 
reflecting an age when beauty and sexuality were measured by bust size; 
when sexual freedom meant male sexual freedom,” wrote the Cleveland 
Plain Dealer. Even Hefner agreed that it was fruitless “to try to keep 
alive something really properly perceived as a reflection of the swinging 
60s,” as he told the Los Angeles Times. “Society has moved on.” 8 

Despite this chorus of criticism, Playboy remained at the top of 
the heap among mens magazines, but PEI’s deteriorating economic 
fortunes reinforced an image of decline. Despite Christie Hefners 
strenuous efforts to rid the company of dead weight, it continued to 
sink lower in the water. The magazine itself, while modestly profit- 
able, saw its circulation drop below four million by the mid-1980s as 
merchandising, with a wide range of apparel and consumer goods, 
became the leading moneymaker for the company. Its cable tele- 
vision initiative floundered. The Playboy Channel, which debuted 
in 1980, lost droves of subscribers as its soft-core, R-rated format 
managed both to bore zealots of the sexual revolution and outrage 



350 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Christian traditionalists, who succeeded in forcing many local stations 
to drop it. By 1986, the full extent of the damage became clear. In its 
annual report, PEI revealed that it had lost an astonishing $62 million, 
much of it a write-off when payment for sale of the Atlantic City casino 
did not materialize. Financial experts reacted with woeful analyses 
of Playboys prospects. “Playboy Enterprises’ fabled rabbit is a cor- 
nered creature these days,” said one. In an internal memo, Christie 
Hefner tried to buck up the PEI troops by pointing to the company’s 
continued strengths. While the financial figures were distressing, she 
wrote, “it is our love affair with the consumer that has made Playboy 
Enterprises what it is, and which will keep the company going.” 9 
In the face of this torrent of bad news, Hefner and his editors 
turned to the magazine. Playboy always had been the heart of the 
enterprise, and revitalizing it now seemed more crucial than ever 
before. In an atmosphere of malaise in the 1980s, the publisher and 
his associates began searching for a new formula that would make the 
publication appealing to a current, less sympathetic audience. 


II 

Longtime readers of Playboy found much that was familiar in the 
1980s. The monthly Playmates continued to lead the parade of 
erotic pictorials, while a new emphasis on celebrities brought reveal- 
ing features on figures such as Suzanne Somers, Madonna, Vanna 
White, Mariel Hemingway, Kim Basinger, LaToya Jackson, and Cindy 
Crawford. One of the most popular featured actress Bo Derek, whose 
dynamic, unclad appearance in the hit movie 10 made her the most 
attention grabbing sex symbol of the age. National politics also pro- 
vided a new avenue for eroticism, with pictorials on Bita Jenrette, wife 
of Congressman John Jenrette, and “The Women of Washington.” 
Hefner provided a personal touch with a 1987 retrospective on Marilyn 
Monroe, whom he described as a “celestial enigma with which every 
incandescent blonde has been (usually unfavorably) compared. Her 
style was both timeless and matchless, her elegance ineffable.” 10 
Playboy continued offering other traditional items. A collection 
of distinguished short stories earned the National Magazine Award 
for fiction in 1985, while a growing focus on sports brought insight- 
ful profiles of boxer Mike Tyson and golfer Greg Norman and an 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


351 


analysis of the NFLs scouting camp. Nonfiction included Cameron 
Crowe s “Fast Times at Ridgemont Fligh,” while coverage of celebrity 
entertainers brought the “Playboy Interview: John Lennon and Yoko 
Ono” — it appeared on the newsstands the night the former Beatle 
was killed in 1981 — and Bob Woodwards examination of “The Short 
Life and Fast Times of John Belushi.” 11 

As always, the magazine sought to stay on the cutting edge of 
popular culture. Playboy ran several pieces on the 1980s mania for 
health and fitness, such as “The Brawning of America” (1984) and 
“The Fitness Myth” (1988). It focused on the home electronics revo- 
lution, advising readers on the “home computer” invasion, the ter- 
minology of (and uses for) personal computers, sophisticated new 
video games, and the emergence of VCRs. In 1984, the magazine 
offered bewildered readers a special “Playboy Guide to Electronic 
Entertainment” that surveyed televisions, computers, and cameras, 
with a warning that “with the electronic world changing so quickly, 
you can use all of the friends you can get.” Around the same time it 
presented centerfold Susie Scott, “our first Playmate to be a computer 
whiz,” in a pictorial titled “Love at First Byte.” 12 

All the while, Playboy’s politics remained staunchly liberal. 
Throughout the decade, Hefner and his magazine launched continu- 
ing attacks on the Reagan administration and the broader conservative 
resurgence in America. It accused Reagan of striking a clandestine 
deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini in order to embarrass President 
Carter and ensure a Republican victory in the 1980 election. It chas- 
tised the new president for encouraging white racism by cutting pro- 
grams for the working poor, opposing extension of the Voting Rights 
Act, giving tax breaks to segregated private schools, and emasculating 
the Civil Rights Commission. It berated his “Jelly Bean Presidency,” 
accusing Reagan of willful ignorance, corruption, wild defense spend- 
ing, and pandering to the bigotry of the Moral Majority. In 1988 it 
lauded the candidacy of Jesse Jackson while a special report the fol- 
lowing year lamented a revival of white racism on campus, which it 
described as sending African American students fleeing to historically 
black colleges. 13 

But the power of the traditional Playboy formula was fading, as 
its editors well knew. “We can no longer contrast ourselves to a gray- 
flannel Eisenhower society,” editor Arthur Kretchmer told the Wall 
Street Journal in 1985. “Its now a lot more difficult for us to offer 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


something unique.” Henry Marks, a top advertising executive at the 
magazine for many years, added, “The common view of Playboy is 
that the publication is getting a bit stale.” These comments encapsu- 
lated the challenge facing Hefner and his magazine: how to overcome 
the perception that it had become anachronistic in a liberated age 
and make it relevant to modem American men. 14 

The renewal project faced two big obstacles. First, Playboy was 
forced to navigate between advocates of the sexual revolution who 
saw Hefner’s publication as quaint, and conservatives who loathed it 
as a symbol of a sex-saturated culture. Observers noted the “Catch-22 
situation in which Playboy management finds itself — damned if it 
becomes too risque, and damned if it doesn’t.” In an interview with 
Charlie Rose, Hefner admitted that sexual liberation, ironically, had 
undermined Playboy and “the magazine would be much more popu- 
lar in a much more repressed society.” As Newsweek concluded in its 
cover story, if he was to survive “Hefner must find a home somewhere 
between the anti-smut activists and the outright pornographers, if 
indeed such an estate exists.” 15 

Second, Playboy confronted a profound shift in mainstream 
American cultural values. Early in the 1980s, it became clear that 
the emotional self-absorption of the Me Decade had transformed 
into the material self-interest of the Gimme Decade. In the age of 
Reagan, the middle class became preoccupied with material afflu- 
ence and economic security, more attuned to family values, and less 
attracted to liberal social reform. “People keep saying that money 
is the sex of the’80s,” observed editor Arthur Cooper of Gentlemans 
Quarterly. “I suspect that’s true to a degree.” In this new atmosphere 
the notorious leftist orientation of Hefner’s magazine became prob- 
lematic. As George Will commented acidly, “the most dated aspect of 
Playboy is its relentlessly liberal politics, which resembles the young 
Marx as misread by the old Mailer.” Playboy’s leadership was not 
blind to the challenge. “We feel we should be running fewer social- 
action pieces now,” editor Nat Lehrman admitted in 1984. “Those 
pieces don’t go down well with our current consumers.” 16 

Thus Hefner and his associates came face-to-face with the con- 
servative realignment in the 1980s that would transform mainstream 
American society for the next several decades. They tried to reshape 
Playboy to accommodate the new Zeitgeist. Kretchmer explained part 
of the strategy as “moving away from a monotonous and relentless 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


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focus on sex and positioning itself as a general interest mens 
magazine.” The magazine also began to cut back its political arti- 
cles in favor of more service features and lifestyle pieces on fashion, 
travel, and popular music. A new physical appearance accompanied 
this refocusing — a switch from staples to a glued, or so-called “per- 
fect binding” — that attempted to distance Playboy from other sex 
magazines and make it more akin to coffee-table publications such as 
Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. Christie Hefner sketched out 
the new vision for Playboy. “Leisure becomes a way of coping with 
a crazy world,” she said, and noted that many Americans now saw an 
annual vacation and recreational activities as necessities, and put as 
much energy into leisure as into work. Moreover, since many men 
were divorced or waiting longer to get married, Playboy increasingly 
wanted to present more practical articles on home decorating and 
home electronics, cooking, and clothes. As Christie told one inter- 
viewer in 1985, readers could expect to see “a very different publica- 
tion from the one my father founded.” 17 

In a fashion, Playboy also sought to make peace with Reagans 
America by reaching out to a much-discussed new group. Young urban 
professionals, or “yuppies,” who jettisoned political radicalism and 
emotional angst for vintage wines, Rolex watches, RMW sports cars, 
designer clothes, and gourmet foods, became a prototype for 1980s 
consumption. Declaring 1984 “The Year of the Yuppie,” Newsweek 
claimed that these youthful, affluent members of the managerial and 
professional classes had embraced a state of “transcendental acqui- 
sition.” Playboy, if not exactly jumping on the yuppie bandwagon, 
nimbly took a seat. While occasionally chastising yuppie greed, it 
nonetheless attempted to reconnect with the young, prosperous, 
striving entrepreneurs of the 1980s. 18 

Playboy, for instance, reemphasized its connection with American 
business. Critical of some of its values yet receptive to its possibilities, 
the magazine began running pieces on how to t hrive in a modern 
commercial milieu. “To survive in the ruthless corporate world of the 
eighties, you have to know when to be a lion, and when to be a lamb,” 
Michael Korda advised readers in his 1981 article “When Rusiness 
Recomes a Rlood Sport.” The magazine presented a long analysis 
of sixties activists who had evolved to embrace money and material- 
ism in the 1980s. Jerry Rubin, who transformed himself from Yippie 
radical to Wall Street stockbroker, exemplified the trend. In 1983, 



354 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Playboy launched a new finance column by the investment expert 
Andrew Tobias. The following years saw a string of articles on topics 
such as dressing for success in corporate America and the emergence 
of corporate celebrities such as Donald Trump. By late in the decade, 
Playboy was even reassessing the social and political significance of 
the 1960s, balancing its traditional view of it as an era of idealis- 
tic, benevolent impulses with another proclaiming that “the Age of 
Aquarius was one long, bad trip by a destructive generation.” 19 

This rapprochement with 1980s business even influenced some 
of Playboy s erotic features. “Taking Stock of Marina” showcased 
blond, beautiful Marina Verola, a stockbroker for E. F. Hutton. 
“What she does like is money. She likes making it, spending a little of 
it and, most of all, managing it for clients across the United States and 
in five foreign countries.” Other pictorials focused on Robin Avener, 
a Madison Avenue advertising executive for Ogilvy & Mather, and 
Pam McCann, Linda Delgado, and Diane McDonald, a trio of lovely 
entrepreneurs who “make a lot of decisions, earn a lot of money, wear 
a lot of diamonds, and turn a lot of heads.” In 1989, Playboy pre- 
sented “The Women of Wall Street.” A text by Louis Rukeyser, host of 
PBSs Wall Street Week, accompanied the alluring photographs. After 
a lengthy discussion of womens steady rise in the business world, 
he noted, “In the end, let us never forget what bright women have 
always known: money is sexy.” 20 

Playboy also modified its creed of sexual liberation with a turn 
toward traditional emotions and institutions. It began the decade with 
a sentimental evocation titled “Well Take Romance.” “Romance is 
the result of style, of timing, of tiny gestures,” this primer informed 
readers. “If you like women, you are romantic.” Playboy even began 
singing the praises of marriage. In 1983 it presented “Meet the Mrs.,” 
a pictorial on Mrs. Oklahoma and Mrs. Georgia that described them 
as “a pair of living testimonials to the wondrous power of marriage.” 
At mid-decade, Hefner chose Kathy Shower, a thirty-three-year-old 
with two daughters, as the Playmate of the Year, noting that “with a 
mom like Kathy Shower — actress and Playmate of the Year — Mindy 
and Melanie already have roots to make them proud.” The new 
kinder, gentler Playboy appeared in full bloom in February 1989 with 
Love: A Special Playboy Issue. Arriving just in time for Valentine s 
Day, this remarkable number featured articles on the dynamics of 
male feelings, quotations on love from some of history s great thinkers 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


355 


and writers, and various techniques for pleasing, arguing with, and 
romancing the woman you love. 21 

A new concern with the complexities of male-female relationships 
colored the 1980s Playboy. Readers encountered traditional warn- 
ings about feminine wiles, such as 1989 s “The Return of Designing 
Women,” which argued that modern women once again were looking 
for a husband to guarantee family, children, and economic security. 
Rut now, significantly, a woman authored it. More often, Playboy 
began exploring the emotional, psychological, and physiological fac- 
tors influencing interactions between the sexes. In 1982, a seven- 
part series titled “Man and Woman” examined research “that is 
working to unravel the essentials of our nature ... a broad science 
of man — of men and women — a science that is trying to find the 
answers to the riddles that lie at the heart of who we are.” Playboy 
increasingly sought the female perspective. In 1983 it began a new 
column titled “Women” by Cynthia Heimel, author of Sex Tips for 
Girls, which she described as “a lighthearted report from the female 
front in the so-called sexual revolution.” “What Women Talk About 
When They Talk About Men,” by Susan Squires, explained how 
women dissected and judged males. This new relational empha- 
sis influenced the magazine’s erotic images. In 1986, for example, 
Playboy ran “Double Take,” a pictorial that featured married actors 
Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith together, nude, kissing and fon- 
dling in sexy poses on a Mexican beach. 22 

Christie Hefner took the lead in explaining Playboy s new 
approach. “Now there’s a much greater sense, and you see it in arti- 
cles as well as in the columns, of talking about relationships,” she 
told the public. “Not just sexual relationships — work relationships, 
love relationships.” A fresh audience of “New Men,” as she termed 
them, had emerged from the confluence of the sexual revolution and 
the womens revolution and were more attuned to domestic life. The 
way men and women “work together, live together, love together, 
keep a home together, raise children together — is about as impres- 
sively progressive in the 1980s as anyone could have imagined.” She 
estimated their numbers at about forty million and defined them as 
Playboy’ s target audience. 23 

Inevitably, such concerns nudged Playboy to explore what it meant 
to be a man in the 1980s. Asa Raber inaugurated a column called 
“Men” that analyzed men’s approach to fatherhood, or their struggles 



356 


MR. PLAYBOY 


to control powerful, primitive sexual drives. Articles began to appear 
such as “The Modem Mans Guide to Life,” which argued that the 
sensitive New Man of the 1960s and 1970s had failed because the pic- 
ture of a male “sitting down and weeping about his difficulties on the 
job or shedding tears of joy at the thought of a Saturday-night dinner 
date is enough to make most women puke.” It argued for “an old- 
fashioned guy, a reasonably thoughtful fellow” who treated women 
with gentlemanly regard, kept his emotions under control, worked 
hard and played hard, set priorities in his life, and stayed in reason- 
able physical shape. Playboy also poked fun at such stereotypes in 
“Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” It facetiously maintained that America 
had become “a nation of wimps. Pansies. Alan Alda types who cook 
and clean and ‘relate’ to their wives. Phil Donahue types who are ‘sen- 
sitive’ and ‘vulnerable’ and ‘understanding’ of their children.” Society, 
it claimed, “can be divided into two categories of men: those who eat 
quiche and those who don’t.” Real Men venerated the benchmarks 
of male history: “1162, Genghis Khan develops role of Genghis Khan 
for Charles Rronson,” “1762, First poker game,” “1948, Invention of 
the chain saw.” 24 

Playboy even modified its erotic attitude. The magazine began 
to approach sex as not just the simplistic pursuit of physical plea- 
sure but a matter of complex needs and desires between men and 
women. In 1981, “The Age of Sexual Detente,” with essays by a male 
and female author, praised the cease-fire in the war between the 
sexes as both shrill feminism and die-hard chauvinism had faded. 
Yet Playboy criticized the aura of brokering in modern romance, as 
men and women haggled over needs and boundaries, rules and pro- 
cedures, seeming “not so much to fall in love or into bed as to arrive 
there, in the sense that you arrive at a solution after a long series 
of calculations or consultations.” It contended that among college 
students, sex seemed to be happening more frequently but in the 
context of committed relationships. “It appears that today’s campus 
offers a strange hybrid of the sexual permissiveness of the Sixties 
and the conservatism of the Eighties.” In 1989, Playboy summed up 
the sexual culture of the decade in a four-part series titled “Rurning 
Desires: Sex in America.” After surveying modern sexual mores, it 
concluded that despite the cooling of the sexual revolution Americans 
had “reinvented pleasure.” This involved finding erotic fulfillment not 
only wi t hin committed relationships but in many wondrous, prudent 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


357 


new forms: phone sex, computer sex, female-produced pornography, 
and “safe sex.” 25 

Any analysis of sexual activity in the 1980s, however, was clouded by 
a deadly new threat. By mid-decade, AIDS had burst on the national 
scene as it spread rapidly among homosexuals before leaping into the 
heterosexual population. As deaths mounted, so did fear. In a series 
of pieces, Playboy became perhaps the first American magazine to 
disseminate accurate information and combat myths while defending 
the cause of sexual liberation. Early in the crisis, the magazine con- 
demned conservatives who maintained that this disease was a revenge 
from God or Nature for homosexuality and heterosexual promiscuity. 
By 1986, the magazine focused on publicizing scientific facts about 
the virus and urging preventative measures: do not share needles, 
avoid anal intercourse and prostitutes, use condoms. It also insisted 
that Hefner’s message of “fearlessly examining society’s inhibitions 
and. . . . trying to raise the curtain on sexual enlightenment” was 
more relevant than ever. By late in the decade, however, Playboy had 
despaired, conceding that the disease had dramatically chilled enthu- 
siasm for sex among young, single, heterosexual men and women 
throughout the country. AIDS, in many ways, seemed to symbolize 
the frustrating new milieu facing Hefner’s magazine. 26 

The struggle to reposition Playboy and recapture cultural rel- 
evance in the 1980s proved to be a long and frustrating task. The 
magazine’s founder, when he wearied of struggling with the woes of 
his enterprise, turned eagerly to the pursuit of romance and sexual 
adventure. He had always found sanctuary in his private fantasies, 
but the haven of female companionship provided no refuge from the 
storm in this dark decade. If anything, Mr. Playboy’s romantic life 
proved even more dismaying. 


Ill 

By 1981, Hefner’s relationship with Sondra Theodore had run its 
course. After five years together, she had become increasingly dis- 
traught over the publisher’s sexual dalliances, while he had grown 
impatient with her possessiveness and emotional fragility. An inten- 
sifying cycle of breakups and reconciliation made it clear that the 
romance had lost its heart. Hefner’s roving eye turned elsewhere. 



358 


MR. PLAYBOY 


It soon focused on Shannon Tweed, a tall, gorgeous blonde from 
Toronto. Twice rejected as a potential Playmate, she had entered 
Playboy through a spot on a Toronto television show that made con- 
testants’ dreams come true. It put her in touch with the organiza- 
tion, and she went on to become Miss November 1981, and then 
Playmate of the Year. She also became Hefners new girlfriend. They 
had met at the mansion during her shoot and became romantically 
involved at the Midsummer’s Night Dream Party in August 1981. 
Soon they were steady companions. 27 

Tweed had been born in 1957 to a large family of mink ranchers 
in Newfoundland. After moving to Saskatchewan following a cata- 
strophic car wreck that left her father incapacitated, she dropped out 
of high school and worked in a variety of coffee shops, restaurants, 
hotels, department stores, and nightclubs in Ottawa. She won the 
Miss Ottawa beauty pageant in 1978, competed for Miss Canada, and 
launched a successful modeling career in Toronto. Eventually, she 
determined to go to Los Angeles to pursue a career in movies and 
television, and saw Playboy as her ticket. 28 

Tweed made no secret of her professional ambitions. “I think I can 
make it in the world of entertainment and I’m going to give it my best 
shot,” she told her hometown newspaper after becoming a Playmate. 
She spoke frankly about using Playboy to advance her prospects, and 
a relationship with Hefner fit comfortably within this larger plan. 
At their first Christmas together, the independent young woman 
gave him a romantic card that said, “I belong to you, too, darling,” 
but carefully crossed out the printed word “belong” and hand-wrote 
in its place, “well, almost.” “Going with Hef is a career move,” she 
informed an interviewer. The publisher suffered no illusions, telling 
People, “I find the way she dropped the net over me enchanting.” As a 
Hefner friend described, when Tweed arrived at the mansion “loving 
the party life and wearing the ‘Absolutely NO domesticity Allowed 
in My Presence’ T-shirt stretched over her perfectly shaped breasts, 
it was too much for Hef to resist.” 29 

Then Hefner and Tweed fell in love. The publisher felt a genu- 
ine spark of affection and within a few months was describing her 
publicly as “the love of my life.” He showered her with so many 
expensive gifts that a friend, after seeing his lavish Christmas list, 
memorized it and entertained mansion friends with a singing rendi- 
tion set to “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.” Astonishingly, Hefner even 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


359 


uttered the dreaded “M word,” telling an old Chicago friend that his 
Canadian girlfriend was “the first woman I have seriously considered 
marrying.” 30 

Tweeds unabashed careerism seemed to melt in the face of a grow- 
ing affection for her older suitor. “I can’t rely on myself for every- 
thing. I need a love in my life,” she began to say. The couple tried to 
maintain a monogamous relationship, and Tweed talked publicly of 
marriage. But she realized the obstacle facing her. “Marriage is not 
natural for Hef. It’s natural for me to think in those terms since it’s 
the first time I’ve known it’s right,” she told People. “But it’s going to 
take him longer since he’s been through it before.” In an interview 
with the London Mirror, she revealed Hefner’s promise that “if we 
were in love in five years’ time and I wanted to have a child, he would 
marry me.” 31 

But soon the genuine love in the relationship began to dissolve 
as complications set in. Tweed’s rapidly advancing career provided 
the initial difficulty. She became host for the new Playboy Channel’s 
magazine show Playboy on the Scene, and the first Video Playmate. 
A regular role on the hit CBS evening soap opera Falcon Crest followed, 
along with two movie parts. Her hectic work schedule demanded fre- 
quent absences, and Hefner bridled. When he complained, Tweed 
replied, “I want to work, I have to work. I can’t just sit around being 
the hostess of the Playboy Mansion. It’s not enough for me.” During 
one of the big mansion parties, Falcon Crest required her to be on 
location, and after much sparring over her schedule Hefner finally 
hired a private plane to fly her directly to the location so she could 
attend the party. “It was the beginning of the end for Hef and me,” 
she commented later. “What he didn’t realize was that our schedules 
would clash more than once.” 32 

Tweed’s gradual disenchantment with her role as mistress of the 
Playboy Mansion widened the split. As the novelty wore off, she felt rest- 
less, unproductive, and restricted in ways that gnawed at her vaunted 
independence . The daily round of game playing bored her silly and she 
grumbled that Hefner’s compulsion had made her a “Pacman widow.” 
He grew disturbed by two by-products of her boisterous lifestyle: 
drugs and infidelities. Hefner claimed that “I couldn’t get her to stop 
using cocaine,” and her sexual peccadilloes infuriated him. He discov- 
ered that she was having an affair with a movie costar in early 1983, for 
instance, and confronted her on the morning of a mansion luncheon 



360 


MR. PLAYBOY 


for television critics. The couple spent an anguished day hiding their 
feelings behind fake smiles as they escorted the visitors around the 
mansion grounds and gave interviews. 33 

The relationship crumbled in spring 1983. Invited by Berry Gordy 
to attend Motowns Twenty-fifth Anniversary Show at the end of 
March, the couple spent much of the evening bickering and left early. 
A few weeks later, Tweed gave Hefner a cartoon showing a man and a 
woman in a boxing ring punching with heart-shaped gloves. “It is an 
all-too-accurate portrayal of the frequently rocky romance,” Hefner 
commented. With both participants increasingly dissatisfied, they 
decided to split up and parted on an amicable note 34 

Hefner, typically, did not tarry. Within two weeks he had become 
involved with another Canadian, this one a sultry brunette who had 
come to the mansion for a Playmate test shoot. Carrie Lee Carmichael - 
soon shortened to Carrie Leigh for professional purposes — had set 
her sights on the publisher, according to Marilyn Grabowski, Playboy’s 
photo editor. On her Playmate Data Sheet, she identified him as the 
man she most admired because he “started with nothing and built an 
empire on what he believed.” When Hefner first saw the nineteen- 
year-old beauty, it was “one of those things when you look across the 
room and something happens,” he told Rolling Stone. “We fell for 
each other.” Leigh, who had been modeling since age fourteen, spent 
the night with Hefner several days later, and within a short time she 
moved in and became the mistress of the mansion. 35 

Leigh quickly established herself in Hefners world. Young, auda- 
cious, and funny, she appeared as a breath of fresh air. She became 
friends with a number of Playmates from this period and hosted 
slumber parties full of youthful female hijinks and girl talk. Leigh 
also became a regular player — and only female — in Hefner s weekly 
card games, and the others gave her a framed poster of the queen 
of spades with a caption: “Carrie Is My Name — Gin Rummy Is My 
Game.” Taking quickly to the good life, she followed a routine of 
sleeping until noon followed by bubble baths, facials, walks around 
the grounds, and workouts in the exercise room. She served as hostess 
for weekly parties and film watching, drawing attention with a parade 
of gaudy, highly revealing outfits that soon began to fill her closets, 
courtesy of a generous weekly allowance from Hefner. According to 
the photographer Alison Reynolds, Leigh used outlandish clothes 
to shock people because “she was more or less an exhibitionist, and 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


361 


I think that’s what made her a good model.” She also bluntly spoke 
her mind. “I’m really honest and straightforward about a lot of things, 
which sometimes gets me into trouble,” she told a reporter. But the 
couple shared a mutual infatuation. In a 1984 interview with the Los 
Angeles Times, she gushed, “Hef is one of the sweetest, most consid- 
erate men in the world!” The publisher smiled and kissed her, adding, 
“There’s nothing sweeter in life than being in love.” 36 

More disturbing qualities soon appeared. Leigh’s attention-seeking 
became more extreme and provocative, as she made a show of walking 
about the mansion grounds with a snake wrapped around her neck. 
On one notable occasion she broke up a meeting of Playboy execu- 
tives on the back patio by parading through the yard naked except 
for a pair of high heels and a gold chain around her waist. She also 
established a reputation as a party animal whose pleasure-seeking, 
according to Hefner and many mansion regulars, produced legend- 
ary bouts of drinking and recreational drug use. “She out-caroused 
the champion carouser of all time: Hef,” reported Anne Stewart. She 
also managed to raise eyebrows at the mansion — no mean feat — with 
a voracious sexual appetite. Stories of her dalliances with men and 
women alike soon began making the rounds among the mansion 
circle and Leigh seemed to delight in her reputation, telling Playboy, 
“I think sometimes I like it even more than he does. I like waking him 
in the middle of the night. ‘Hef!’ In the morning: ‘Hef!’ Sometimes, 
I even try to get him out of his meetings.” Leigh’s emotional volatility 
became conspicuous. “There were early signs of instability. She got 
drunk one night and ran down the hall naked, threatening to throw 
herself off the balcony,” reported Lisa Loving. Marilyn Grabowski 
noted that Leigh would “act crazy and create a scene just to get Hef’s 
attention.” Hefner described a 1985 incident in which his girlfriend 
left for Toronto for “three delirious weeks of drinking, drugs, and 
sexual excess.” In his words, she phoned “from the bathroom of her 
Toronto hotel suite because her partners from the night before were 
still asleep in the bedroom. . . . She wanted to come home.” 37 

Leigh desperately sought celebrity. “Basically, I’m insecure and 
need attention. I want to be a superstar,” she confessed to a Los 
Angeles newspaper. When Jessica Hahn moved into the mansion for 
several months after toppling Jim Bakker in the PTL Club sex scandal, 
Leigh declared, “I wish I had the same [publicity] happen to me.” She 
pleaded with Hefner to put her in Playboy and he finally arranged a 



362 


MR. PLAYBOY 


1986 cover story titled “The First Lady of the Playboy Mansion.” 
She then sought to parlay the publicity into an acting career with a 
bit of instruction and an impatient wait to be discovered. According 
to the film director Richard Brooks, however, Leigh’s “delusions . . . 
came to nothing. She did plenty of over-acting around the mansion, 
but that was about it.” Her search for fame also produced much 
cosmetic surgery. She underwent numerous procedures — several 
nose operations, cheek implants, breast enhancement, facial peel, 
lip enhancement — in a quest for physical perfection. This produced 
a brittle beauty that — in combination with her temperamental 
personality — earned her a special moniker among regulars and staff 
at the mansion: Scary Leigh. 38 

Hefner and Leigh’s relationship became an emotional yo-yo with 
wild swings between passion and contention, romantic fulfillment and 
emotional drain. Her outlandish behavior produced frequent quarrels, 
usually followed by overwrought apologies such as this one: “I am very 
sorry for being unkind tonight. You don’t deserve that kind of treat- 
ment. You have made me happier than I ever thought possible and 
behaving the way I did is no way to show my gratitude. I love you and 
I promise that things are just going to get nicer between us. Love for- 
ever, Carrie.” Hefner believed that alcohol roused darker impulses. In 
the summer of 1985, after a heavy bout of drinking, she wrote him a 
disjointed note that hinted of suicide. “Thank you, Hef. I would die for 
you . . . love is the key to my life and if I can’t fulfill that desire and goal 
then I have nothing to live for,” she wrote. “Love is the most important 
thing in life. If I can’t have that then I have no reason for existence and 
neither do you.” In September 1986, Leigh created a public stir when 
she insisted on wearing — over Hefner’s objections — an extremely 
revealing dress to a fund-raiser for Democratic candidates held at 
Barbra Streisand’s home. Said one published account, it was “as tight 
as the casing on a Dodger hot dog. The front of this creation consists 
of two pieces of cloth crisscrossed over her breasts; she looks like a 
railroad crossing guard in a Russ Meyer movie.” According to Hefner, 
Leigh fled the event after the couple squabbled, lost a very expensive 
diamond ring he had given her as a gift, and ended up in bed at a 
friend’s apartment. 39 

Leigh’s emotional frailty produced endless entreaties, or demands, 
for reassurances from her boyfriend. Several times a day, she would 
ask Hefner, “Do you love me? Am I beautiful?” In her Playboy cover 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


363 


story, she admitted to “insecurities and changes in mood. Hef is 
the first man I’ve ever known who can handle me no matter what 
mood I’m in.” For the publisher, this meant a stream of verbal and 
financial avowals, sweet talk and credit cards, pet names and furs, 
endearments and jewels. Hefner gave Leigh daily gifts, which he 
called “Dr. Bunny” presents, and she would accept or reject them 
as she wished. Executive assistant Mary O’Connor recorded some of 
these episodes in her diary. “Hef walked up while Carrie was saying 
the diamonds on her necklace were lonesome. . . . Hef came down, 
Carrie depressed — Dr. Bunny took presents, Carrie didn’t like them, 
but she may consider keeping the pants and sweater. . . . Hef took 
diamonds for Carrie to see. She preferred the baguette. Hef finally 
selected a stone from Marvin Hime — $18,000.” In addition, Hefner 
gave Leigh a $5,000 a month clothing allowance, several fur coats, 
a five-carat diamond friendship ring, and a yearly birthday gift that 
matched her age in thousands of dollars — $22,000 on her twenty- 
second birthday and so on for the next several years. 40 

The relationship took on a peculiar sexual dynamic. Hefner, 
increasingly weary of a group-sex scene he now described as “point- 
less and pathetic” and interested in settling down, became genuinely 
monogamous. As Leigh told Newsweek in 1986, “He doesn’t fool 
around now — I’d kill him. I don’t know how the hell he pulled it off 
with his other girlfriends.” Leigh, however, according to many wit- 
nesses, pursued sex in a variety of venues. Several Playmates reported 
that she made advances to them — “I know she was into girls a little 
bit,” said one — while Marilyn Grabowski recounted how she would 
send her love notes and call in the middle of the night. Hefner gained 
knowledge of several sexual affairs Leigh had with men. In fact, when 
Leigh got pregnant and had an abortion, the publisher doubted that 
the child was his. “I’m a responsible and careful guy,” he explained. 
“It’s one of the reasons I’ve never had any paternity suits.” 41 

Hefner’s friends grew increasingly appalled at Leigh’s behavior 
and his toleration of it. “It was painful to watch. . . . Here he was 
letting himself be humiliated, even letting her rub his face in affairs 
with other people,” said John Dante. Cis Bundle described the situ- 
ation as “toxic” while Dick Stewart denounced her as “a nut case.” 
Richard Brooks saw Leigh as a “cuckoo girl” who “mixed a posture 
of humility with steel claws.” Some even confronted Hefner. Both of 
his children told him they disapproved of Leigh, and Keith Hefner 



364 


MR. PLAYBOY 


pleaded with his brother to get rid of the young woman, whom he 
described as “a terrible person who was making faces and jokes about 
him behind his back and embarrassing him in public.” Lisa Loving, 
an outspoken Hefner assistant, told him frankly that everyone at the 
mansion was “embarrassed by your association with her. . . . You are 
degrading yourself beyond belief.” Many concluded that the young 
Canadian was taking her wealthy, older boyfriend for a financial ride. 
According to Anne Stewart, she once asked Leigh if she was taking 
acting lessons and the young woman replied that she didn’t need 
them. When Stewart inquired why not, Leigh responded, “If I can 
make Hef believe I love him, I’m the greatest actress in the world.” 
Leigh seemed unconcerned about her gold-digger image, telling a 
Newsweek reporter who admired her diamond “friendship ring” from 
Hefner, “if we got engaged it would have to be 10 more carats.” 42 

But Hefner insisted on viewing Leigh in gauzy soft focus as a lead- 
ing lady — part femme fatale and part ingenue — in the movie of his 
life. He found her sexually exciting, unconventional, and even fun. In 
interviews, he described their relationship as “especially fulfilling,” 
characterized the period as “one of the best times of my life,” and 
opined that “life is deadly dull when a relationship becomes routine 
and boring. Carrie Leigh was never boring.” When his friends put 
her down, he angrily rushed to her defense. “How can they say this 
dynamite-looking woman with this incredible taste in clothes and a 
flair for fashion, willing to take steps beyond the boundaries, how can 
they say that she’s a source of embarrassment? She is an incredible 
addition,” he countered. 43 

Yet Hefner understood all too well Leigh’s flighty mental state. 
She drove him to distraction with her antics, but her emotional vul- 
nerability powerfully aroused his sympathy. Among confidants, he 
spoke of her as his “crippled bird” and mused that he could somehow 
nurture this lost soul to a state of stability and self-worth. The pathos 
in Leigh’s insatiable hunger for affection and praise caused him to 
see her as emotionally destitute rather than manipulative. Hefner’s 
empathy even led him to understand her sexual indiscretions. “I’ve 
never known anybody like her, who used seduction with both guys 
and girls as a way of reaffirming that she is desirable or worthy,” he 
said years later. Mary O’Connor, who knew her boss well, suspected 
another factor at work. She saw the ghost of Bobbie Arnstein hover- 
ing in the background, causing Hefner to purge some guilt by doing 



THE PARTY’S OVER 


365 


“those things that I think he feels he should have done more of with 
Bobbie.” 44 

Indeed, Leigh ultimately cut a poignant, rather than a malicious, 
figure as she cavorted about the mansion craving attention. Scarcely 
educated, emotionally immature, and thrown into a demanding 
social whirl, this young woman simply was ill-equipped for her role 
in Hefners life. She reached for the tools at hand — exhibitionism 
and shock tactics — to try and gain security in a pressurized environ- 
ment. As Chuck McCann, an old Hefner friend, put it, Leigh “really 
didn’t have a fix on life yet. She didn’t know what she wanted. . . . 
With someone like Carrie, coming into a person’s life like Hef — it’s 
too much, too soon.” Playmate Julie McCullough, a friend of Leigh’s, 
attributed her theatrics to confusion about life goals and a sense of 
place: “She was like a princess in a big house with not a lot to do.” 45 

But by the fall of 1987 Leigh’s outrageous behavior had worn down 
even Hefner. “She just got more and more hysterical, making scenes 
and throwing tantrums, smashing things, running nude around the 
house — anything to get a rise out of him,” reportevd John Dante. In 
late September a final straw came when an agitated Leigh, in front of 
a group of guests, threw an expensive Gallo statue off the balcony of 
the mansion’s great hall, smashing it to bits on the marble floor below. 
She then fled the premises and disappeared with a female friend for 
five days. Several weeks later, Leigh procured a key to the safe in 
Hefner’s room and took a sex tape of him and several women that 
had been made in the 1970s. Telling close friend Jessica Hahn, “I’m 
going to expose him,” she hid the tape in Hahn’s mansion bedroom. 
But Hahn, grateful to Hefner for taking her in after the PTL scandal, 
returned the tape to him and explained what his girlfriend was plan- 
ning. Leigh, it turned out, already had met with palimony attorney 
Marvin Mitchelson and the purloined tape seems to have been part 
of a ruse to force Hefner into a large monetary settlement. A fum- 
ing Hefner noted that after this “attempted shake-down . . . Carrie 
feels betrayed by Jessica and Hef feels betrayed by Carrie. Merry 
Christmas, everyone!” 46 

The unbearable tension finally snapped in January 1988 when 
Leigh left with two girlfriends for a trip to New York City. She phoned 
to say that she would not be returning to the mansion. Hefner was 
both hurt and relieved. A short time later, Leigh and Mitchelson held 
a press conference announcing the filing of a palimony suit against 



366 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Hefner in the amount of $35 million. After the publisher denounced 
it as a “publicity stunt” and filed a countersuit, Leigh reacted with 
typical unpredictability — she suddenly dropped her legal action to 
marry an antiques dealer she had met in New York. A chagrined 
Hefner noted that Leigh had loved the 1987 movie Black Widow, a 
thriller about a woman who married several wealthy men and then 
murdered them for their money. “It didn’t occur to me that Carrie 
might be viewing it as a training film,” he said ruefully. 47 

So the publisher’s personal life, much like the financial state of 
his company, fell on hard times in the 1980s. Buffeted by Playboy’s 
growing public problems, a “damaged” Hefner, as he described him- 
self, yearned for genuine amour. Instead, he fell into a tumultuous 
psychodrama with Carrie Leigh. “I was trying to settle down; I just 
picked the wrong girl,” he said later. But his problems were only 
beginning. The atmosphere grew even darker as a gathering political 
storm blew Hefner back into the public limelight and threatened to 
destroy him. 48 



18 


Strange Bedfellows 


I n the mid-1980s, a political assault gathered force and challenged 
everything that Hugh Hefner and Playboy stood for. An alliance 
of strange ideological bedfellows, it aimed to exterminate the pub- 
lisher, his magazine, and his values. In the front ranks stood newly 
empowered conservatives of the Reagan administration, but close 
behind them pressed supporting squadrons of radical feminists. On 
most issues these two groups clashed, but they overlooked differ- 
ences to mount a common crusade against what they saw as the cor- 
rupting influence of degrading erotic images, promiscuous sexuality, 
and the exploitation of women. Figures as diverse as the Reverend 
Jerry Falwell and the lesbian activist Andrea Dworkin joined forces 
and tried to put Hefner out of business. In a bizarre final chapter of 
this political saga, Peter Rogdanovich, Dorothy Stratten s distraught 
boyfriend, emerged from mourning to join the assault. 

As this political attack built up steam, Hefner mounted a desperate 
defense. Throwing himself into the fight, he became obsessed with 
defending his reputation, his life’s work, and his principles. The stress 
took a severe personal toll on the publisher, and in an ultimate symbol 
of the dark period of the 1980s, his health finally broke down. 


367 



368 


MR. PLAYBOY 


I 

On May 20, 1985, Attorney General Edwin Meese announced the 
formation of a special federal panel to study pornography. While a 
1970 presidential commission had concluded that there was no link 
between sexual material and sexual crime or delinquency, Meese 
insisted that a new study was needed. Pornography had become more 
pervasive and more violent, he charged. “We no longer must go out 
of the way to find pornographic materials. With the advent of cable 
television and video recorders, pornography now is available at home 
to almost anyone, regardless of age, at the mere touch of a button.” 1 

The eleven-person Meese Commission, as it quickly became 
known, included three liberals: Judith Becker of Columbia University, 
Park Dietz of the University of Virginia, and Ellen Levine of Womens 
Day. But conservatives dominated the panel. They included several 
Bepublican politicos and several antipornography advocates, such 
as James C. Dobson, religious traditionalist and popular radio-show 
host of Focus on the Family, the Reverend Bruce Ritter, director of 
a home for runaways who blamed the pornography industry for their 
plight, and a law professor from the University of Michigan, Frederick 
Schauer, who had argued that visual pornography was not speech and 
therefore not subject to First Amendment protection. The chairman 
was Henry E. Hudson, prosecuting attorney for Arlington County, 
Virginia, who had successfully banished most pornography from this 
suburban Washington, D.C., area. The panel was enjoined to deter- 
mine the nature of pornography’s impact on American life, and to 
make recommendations to the Justice Department about containing 
its spread. 2 

The political clout of the Reagan administration clearly lay behind 
this initiative. Religious conservatives and the Moral Majority com- 
prised a powerful part of the new Republican majority, and the 
president sympathized with their horrified view of a sex-saturated 
moral decline in America. He had made several speeches denounc- 
ing pornography as “a form of pollution” and pledged to clean up 
these “hazardous-waste sites.” Addressing the National Association 
of Evangelicals in March 1984, Reagan argued that in the 1960s and 
1970s America seemed “to lose her religious and moral bearings, to 
forget that faith and values are what made us good and great.” This 
decline was reflected not only in rampant drug use, legalized abortion, 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


369 


and the banning of prayer from schools, but also in pornography and 
promiscuity. Sexual images had become available everywhere, he 
contended. “Liberal attitudes viewed promiscuity as acceptable, even 
stylish. Indeed, the word itself was replaced by a new term, ‘sexually 
active.’” But now, Reagan concluded, the American people had 
decided to “put a stop to that long decline” and seek moral renewal. 
Soon after, the president announced specific plans: the convening 
of a special commission because “we consider pornography to be a 
public problem.” 3 

Background skirmishing between Hefner and religious fun- 
damentalists had preceded this declaration of war. In 1982, the 
Reverend Donald Wildmon announced that his National Federation 
for Decency would bestow a “Pomographer of the Month” award to 
corporations that advertised in Playboy and publish their CEO’s name 
and company phone number. Wildmon also orchestrated demonstra- 
tions against including the Playboy Channel on local cable channels 
and selling the magazine in neighborhood stores. Jerry Falwell also 
spoke out, calling for Hefner’s religious conversion. “Wouldn’t it 
be wonderful,” he said, “if Hugh Hefner got saved and shut down 
Playboy Enterprises and became a spokesman for Jesus Christ? He 
could be another Saul.” 4 

Then in 1984 the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice 
and Delinquency Prevention funded a controversial study that sought 
to link Playboy and the sexual abuse of children. It awarded a grant 
for $743,000 to Judith Reisman for a content analysis of cartoons 
in men’s magazines with regard to the sexual portrayal of children. 
This former producer and writer for the Captain Kangaroo show had 
made a stir when she termed Hefner and other publishers of male 
magazines as “sexual fascists . . . who are every bit as dangerous as 
Hitler.” In 1983, she charged that the sex investigator Alfred J. Kinsey 
had engaged in “vicious genital torture” of children and had sex with 
over eight hundred minors during the course of his research. Now she 
analyzed hundreds of images in Playboy , Penthouse , and Hustler, and 
concluded that they portrayed children sexually to varying degrees, 
implying a connection to child abuse. The charges were absurdly false 
regarding Playboy, which never depicted children in sexual situa- 
tions, and experts almost unanimously dismissed Reisman’s study as 
having little social science value. But her effort illustrated the larger 
ideological conflict that was brewing. 5 



370 


MR. PLAYBOY 


In reply, Playboy taunted its fundamentalist oppressors during the 
early 1980s. In 1982 s “Holy Terror,” the authors described a new 
form of terrorism: “Americas fundamentalist right, a hybrid of reli- 
gious and political absolutism led by a small group of preachers and 
political strategists, has begun to use religion and all that Americans 
hold sacred to seize power across a broad spectrum of our lives.” 
A Playboy editorial skewered the Reagan administrations “porn 
paranoia” with the Reisman grant, noting her lackluster credentials, 
and exposing the close ties between Office of Juvenile Justice appoin- 
tees and Jerry Falwell, anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly, and the 
Reverend Pat Robertson. Playboy also helped form People for 
the American Way, an advocacy group soon running anticensorship 
ads in newspapers and magazines around the country. 6 

Rut the forces of fundamentalism in the Reagan administration 
gained an unlikely ally from the other end of the political spectrum. 
Ry the early 1980s, radical feminists had launched their own assault 
on pornography, claiming that sexually explicit material denigrated 
women and led to acts of sexual violence. In the words of the femi- 
nist writer Robin Morgan, “Pornography is the theory and rape is 
the practice.” Susan Rrownmiller, author of Against Our Will , spoke 
similarly. “Pornography is propaganda against women, and propa- 
ganda is a very powerful spur to action — think of the anti-Semitic 
propaganda in Hitler’s Germany,” she declared in Harper’s. Fired 
by such convictions, antipom feminists protested the sale of sexual 
material in cities throughout the United States and formed pressure 
groups such as Women Against Pornography and Women Against 
Violence in Pornography and Media. Ry 1984, they were prepared 
to join cultural conservatives in a war on smut, including Hefner and 
Playboy. 7 

The feminist antiporn crusade found a focal point in the endeavors 
of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. The former, an urbane 
law professor from the University of Michigan and the University of 
Chicago, and the latter, a lesbian activist and radical writer habitually 
dressed in overalls and work shirts, formed a partnership urging legal 
action to restrict pornography. They took a new constitutional tack 
in doing so, defining pornography as a violation of the civil rights of 
women. In the same way that racist speech was linked to racism, they 
argued, pornography was linked to sex discrimination against women. 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


371 


“Pornography creates attitudes that keep women second-class 
citizens,” Dworkin contended. MacKinnon defined pornography as 
“an actual practice of subordinating women. Its a technologically 
sophisticated form of trafficking in women.” These activists served 
as consultants for the city councils of Minneapolis and Indianapolis, 
drafting ordinances that allowed women who were injured through 
pornography to sue for damages. They were found to be unconsti- 
tutional, and neither ordinance went into effect, but a larger target 
still remained: the godfather of the sexual revolution in America. As 
Dworkin declared, “Playboy, both in text and pictures, promotes 
rape. Its cartoons promote both rape and sexual abuse.” 8 

Hefner and Playboy confronted their feminist foes. Two 1980 arti- 
cles, “Women at War” and “Women Against Sex,” portrayed antiporn 
feminists as angry fanatics who sought to abolish First Amendment 
rights and censor anyone who disagreed with their assessment of 
sexual materials impact on women. They noted Marcia Womongold, 
a Boston militant who fired a rifle bullet through the window of a 
Harvard bookstore because it sold copies of Playboy, Oui, and 
Penthouse. They pointed out that antipom feminists denounced sex- 
ual images in newspaper ads, fashion magazines such as Vogue, and 
movies and television. They accused Women Against Pornography of 
collapsing all distinctions between sadistic images of physical harm to 
women and fashion photos or Playmate pictorials. In 1981, Christie 
Hefner reviewed one of the key texts of antipom feminism, Take Back 
the Night: Women on Pornography, edited by Laura Lederer, and 
dismissed it for failing “to recognize the subtleties and complexities 
of sexuality, pornography, and violence, coupled with its underlying 
theme that men have a propensity to rape and beat women.” James 
Petersen critiqued these crusaders as “Big Sister” agents of thought 
control right out of Orwell’s police state with their own brand of new- 
speak: “Sex is Bape. Desire is Degradation. The Personalis Political. The 
Public is Private. Pleasure is Oppression. Pom is Thought Crime.” 9 
A special controversy erupted in 1980 with the publication of 
Ordeal: An Autobiography, by Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep 
Throat, the hit porn movie from the 1970s. She now claimed that 
she had been violently intimidated by her husband/manager, Chuck 
Traynor, and claimed that Hefner had exploited her during a several- 
day visit to the mansion. Lovelace maintained that Traynor and Hefner 



372 


MR. PLAYBOY 


had organized an “orgy night” of group sex with Bunnies, Playmates, 
and hookers, and that Traynor had pushed her into a public sexual 
act with a young woman before forcing her to have sex with Hefner. 
Most luridly, she contended that Traynor set up a private scene for 
Hefner to observe her having sex with a dog, although she claimed 
to have feigned the act . 10 

Hefner was caught up in the furor of headlines and reviews. He 
heatedly denied the charges as pure fiction, contending that his rela- 
tionship with Lovelace “was based on friendship, not sex” and that he 
had no knowledge of any intimidation. He characterized her claims 
as a sensational publicity stunt to boost sales. “The suggestion that 
she did not enjoy her life at this period is preposterous. She car- 
ried on in the same manner after she left Traynor. I saw no change 
in personality, dress, what have you,” he contended. But antiporn 
feminists embraced Lovelace. In her introduction to a second book 
by the actress titled Out of Bondage, Gloria Steinem pictured her 
as a victim of smut and lashed out at “Hugh Hefner and his Playboy 
Mansion,” contending that the key issue with pornography was “free 
will.” In her words, “pornography is to women of all groups what Nazi 
literature is to Jews and Ku Klux Klan literature is to Blacks .” 11 

Against this backdrop, the Meese Commission emerged as a 
fundamentalist-feminist partnership determined to create legal restric- 
tions against the distribution, sale, and consumption of pornographic 
materials. “In an unusual alliance, feminists have joined conservative 
intellectuals to make a case for a ban,” wrote the New York Times. 
Newsweek agreed that “radical feminists . . . joined by right-wing 
fundamentalists” comprised the new “shock troops” assaulting the 
pornography industry. Dworkin had no qualms about her new allies. 
“When women get raped they’re not asked first if they’re Democrats 
or Republicans,” she declared. The liberal toleration of pornography 
demonstrated “clearly how the left has betrayed women — they are 
entirely corrupt .” 12 

This political alliance of strange bedfellows made Playboy, the 
most prominent symbol of sexual liberation and imagery in postwar 
America, a leading target. Over the previous thirty years, Hefner had 
suffered periodic attacks from foes outraged by his advocacy of rec- 
reational sex and unconventional morality. But never before had the 
opposition found such powerful political expression. Clearly, he was 
in trouble. 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


373 


II 

The Meese Commission, armed with a budget of only $500,000 
and facing a twelve-month deadline, quickly convened a series of 
hearings around the country. In the fall of 1985 and early 1986 they 
heard some three hundred hours of testimony from over two hundred 
witnesses, close to 80 percent of whom were critics of pornography. 
They convened publicly in six cities to focus on preordained topics: 
Washington (general), Chicago (law enforcement), Houston (social 
science), Los Angeles (production and distribution), Miami (child 
pornography), and New York (organized crime). The panel heard 
graphic testimony from a variety of interested parties concerning por- 
nography: vice cops and victims, prosecutors and producers, born- 
again Christians and feminist activists, the National Federation for 
Decency and the FBI, sober researchers and thundering preachers. 
The panelists watched dozens of movies and videos, saw countless 
slide shows put together by witnesses, perused innumerable maga- 
zines, and heard taped dial-a-pom encounters. They took field trips to 
sex shops (“Mr. Peepers” in Houston) and sex districts (Times Square 
in New York), surveyed the most extreme kinds of sexual behavior 
and fetishes, and discovered during a session on the world of “rubber 
goods” (dildos and dolls) that the Houston vice squad had confis- 
cated and was storing some twenty-seven thousand items. At times 
the commission, according to Time , seemed to be on a “surrealist 
mystery tour of sexual perversity, peeping at the most recondite forms 
of sexual behavior known — though mostly unknown — to society.” 13 
Playboy emerged as a key target. In Chicago, company attorney 
Burt Joseph reminded the commission that the magazine had never 
“at any time, in any jurisdiction been found to be obscene in a court 
of law.” But the commission quickly erased any positive impres- 
sions. In Miami, a middle-aged man carrying a Bible testified that 
first seeing an issue of Playboy at age twelve had sent him down 
the path to sexual perversion and drug abuse. In Los Angeles, Miki 
Garcia, a former Playmate, caused a sensation when she denounced 
Hefner, his organization, and his lifestyle. Miss January 1973, and 
later director of Playmate Promotions, she accused the Playboy pub- 
lisher of encouraging Playmates to use illegal drugs, coercing them 
into orgies, and exploiting women for sexual pleasure, all of which 
were covered up because of Hefner s influence with the Los Angeles 



374 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Police Department. She claimed that some Playmates became part of 
a call-girl ring while others became victims of rape, serial abortions, 
venereal disease, and unwanted cosmetic surgery. “I want the public 
to recognize that Playboy magazine is not the coffee table literature 
that Hugh Hefner says it is, but rather a pornographic magazine,” 
she declared. Garcia added the dramatic claim that her testimony 
would “put my life and those of my family’s in danger.” Newspapers 
leaped on her lurid accusations, writing that “rape, attempted suicide, 
and violent crime were part of the Playboy lifestyle.” 14 

Playboy angrily denied all of Garcias charges. Spokesmen pointed 
out that she had never made a single complaint about improper or 
illegal activity during her employment. Instead, she had written in 
a memo, “It may sound corny, but Playboy has been a wonderful 
influence on my life. I respect and admire Mr. Hefner and what he 
stands for.” They noted that Garcia had been trying, unsuccessfully, 
to peddle a book manuscript about her Playboy days and accused her 
of using the commission testimony to prompt interest in the stalled 
project. 15 

Brenda MacKillop, a born-again Bunny who had worked at the 
Los Angeles Playboy Club from 1973 to 1976 and frequented the Play- 
boy Mansion, also testified. Now a Christian, pastors wife, and anti- 
porn activist, she related that her Playboy lifestyle had brought on 
depression and near-suicide. “I implore the Attorney General’s com- 
mission to see the connection between sexual promiscuity, venereal 
disease, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, sexual abuse of children, 
suicide, drug abuse, rape, and prostitution to pornography,” MacKillop 
stated. She also appeared at antipornography protests around the 
country, characterizing Playboy as “filth,” and even sent a letter and 
a Bible to Hefner. “What is one to say to someone who has publicly 
vilified me in such a totally distorted and bizarre fashion in front of 
the Meese Commission, on television, and in various published inter- 
views?” he replied sharply. “I have never treated you with anything 
but kindness. . . . You claim to be a good Christian, but the form of 
Christianity that you practice seems to be the equivalent of placing a 
burning cross on someone’s front lawn.” 16 

Early in 1986, the Meese Commission directly attacked Hefner’s 
operation. Its executive director, Alan E. Sears, a fervent anti- 
obscenity prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s office in western 
Kentucky, sent letters to twenty-three retailers saying that they 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


375 


had been accused of involvement in the sale or distribution of 
pornography. The commission asked for a response to the allegation 
by March 3, and stated that “failure to respond will necessarily be 
accepted as an indication of no objection.” The list of companies, 
provided by the Reverend Wildmon, included Coca-Cola (it owned 
Columbia Pictures), Time, Inc. (it presented R-rated movies on HRO 
and Cinemax), and Vogue (for running Calvin Klein’s “Obsession” 
fragrance ads). This ominous missive clearly threatened a flood of 
adverse publicity from the government if the companies did not cease 
selling materials that Wildmon considered pornographic. Within 
weeks, the pressure tactic bore fruit. 17 

The parent company of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, the 
Southland Corporation, announced in April that its seventy-five hun- 
dred outlets and franchises would stop selling Playboy, Penthouse, 
and Forum. Other retailers quickly followed suit. Ry summer the 
magazines had been dropped by Revco Drug Stores, People’s 
Drug Stores, Rite Aid Drug Stores, the Dart Drug Corporation, 
Stop-N-Go, and Lawson’s Milk Company, while J. C. Penney decided 
to stop selling Playboy/ Playmate merchandise. The president of 
Southland explained that the company had grown disturbed by com- 
mission testimony indicating “a growing public awareness and con- 
cern over a possible connection between adult magazines and crime, 
violence, and child abuse.” 18 

Playboy responded angrily to the commission’s prompting of the 
7-Eleven ban. Christie Hefner condemned the action as “a response 
to the hysteria of the moment” while Robert Scheer, in a blistering 
analysis in Playboy titled “Inside the Meese Commission,” 
described the panel as “an evangelical soap opera.” PEI also took 
legal action, joining with the American Rooksellers Association 
and the Magazine Publishers Association to file suit, claiming that 
the Meese Commission was creating a “blacklist” that was causing 
companies to pull from its shelves publications that had not been ruled 
obscene. On July 3, a federal district court judge agreed. He ruled 
that the Sears letter contained “an implied threat” that violated the 
First Amendment by creating “a prior restraint of speech, a right 
so precious in this nation.” He ordered the Meese Commission to 
notify the retailers and retract the threat and forbade it from includ- 
ing Wildmon’s list of supposed corporate transgressors in its final 
report. After this victory, Playboy turned the knife. A few months 



376 


MR. PLAYBOY 


later, it ran a pictorial on “The Women of 7-Eleven,” gleefully no t ing 
of the Southland ban, “Did we get mad? Did we get even? No. We 
got down.” It quoted its alluring subjects decrying how “The religious 
groups seem to be taking over” and complaining that “we don’t have 
magazines with beautiful women. But we do have magazines on guns 
and war and violence.” 19 

Playboy quickly gained allies. The National Coalition Against 
Censorship, which listed such notable figures as Kurt Vonnegut, 
Betty Friedan, and Colleen Dewhurst, characterized the commission 
as an attempt to restrict the free expression of ideas. The novelists 
John Updike and John Irving wrote letters decrying the threat to 
First Amendment rights. Fiberal publications such as the Nation 
denounced the commission as a product of cynical Reaganites manip- 
ulating misguided feminists while an ACFU spokesman observed, 
“I’m afraid there is a train marked ‘censorship’ which has just left the 
station.” Women’s rights groups such as the Feminist Anti-Censorship 
Task Force (FACT) took issue with the antipomography campaign, 
arguing that restrictions on free expression always rebounded to harm 
oppressed or less powerful groups. Some conservative newspapers 
expressed reservations on libertarian grounds. The Chicago Tribune 
observed that opposition to “the unchecked use of government power 
used to be one of the main tenets of the conservative faith.” The 
Orange County Register described the commission as “bluenosed 
bullies” promoting “a betrayal of the principle of strictly limited gov- 
ernment on which our nation was founded.” 20 

This conflict galvanized Hefner into action. As had not been the 
case since the 1950s, he assumed the stance of an outsider battling 
the hoary forces of moral authority and sexual restriction. “Suddenly 
Playboy is hopping again,” the Chicago Tribune noted. “The magazine 
is once again thrust to the ramparts, battling the forces of igno- 
rance and repression.” With a renewed sense of relevance, Hefner 
reemerged as a happy warrior. 21 

The Playboy publisher excoriated religious conservatives who 
sought to turn back the clock on the sexual revolution. Since the 
1950s, he insisted, intelligent people had come to see sexuality as a 
vital part of the human experience. “When I was growing up, continu- 
ally our society pitted body and mind against one another, and contin- 
ually suggested that the devil is in the flesh,” he said. “It seems to me 
that we are doing the same thing all over again.” Sexual liberation was 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


377 


an irreversible product of historical change and “what we are seeing 
now is really a reaction to that,” he told a radio interviewer. “I think 
what happens to some extent is that in the changing of society one 
takes two steps forward and one step back. What we’re going through 
right now is a kind of digesting of the changes.” 22 

A rejuvenated Hefner also took on the Meese Commission 
directly. Taking up the editorial pen as he had not since the Playboy 
Philosophy frenzy of the early 1960s, he wrote several indignant 
pieces in Playboy. Hefner accused the panel of engaging in “sexual 
McCarthyism” and “putting on a circus show of misinformation 
and innuendo” as it tried to convince the public that erotic materials 
were harmful. Rather than researching the facts and probing the work 
of social scientists who had studied the subject, the panel “trundled 
out a parade of born-again basket cases, anti-sex feminists, and fun- 
hating fundamentalists.” After the Sears letter, Hefner accused the 
commission of becoming “the tool of evangelical terrorists” and 
described the incident as “the first successful use of a national black- 
list since the McCarthy era.” 23 

Nor did Hefner mince words concerning Meese s feminist allies. 
A small faction of the women’s movement had endorsed an antisexual 
position, he argued. “I think the fact that the women’s movement 
got sidetracked with its anti-porn, anti-sexuality is very, very hurtful 
because the women’s movement was supposed to be all about free- 
dom. . . . The notion that sexual imagery is demeaning or that sex 
itself is somehow demeaning to women, is one of the saddest notions 
in terms of our sexuality that I can possibly imagine.” Hefner main- 
tained that genuine feminism was about equality in education, the 
workplace, and the law. But “Puritanism has always been a part of 
the women’s movement. That’s why radical feminists wind up on the 
same side as the Christian right-wingers fighting porn.” While vilifi- 
cation from feminists hurt, he admitted, it mainly came from a radi- 
cal fringe. If progressivism now involved “the attitude that is often 
expressed today, that the actual images of the sex act are degrading to 
women, then we’re in serious trouble,” Hefner contended. 24 

In July 1986, Attorney General Meese released the commission’s 
final report in a news conference held in the Great Hall of the Justice 
Department. In an amusingly ironic tableau, he spoke in front of the 
“Spirit of Justice,” a twelve-foot statue of a woman with one breast 
bared. The commission issued what one newspaper described as “a 



378 


MR. PLAYBOY 


call to arms against an $8 billion-a-year porn industry,” asserting a 
causal link between violent pornography and “acts of sexual violence” 
and claiming that nonviolent sexual material had a harmful effect 
on society by undermining personal character and devaluing family 
life. The two-volume, nearly two-thousand-page report offered 
ninety-two recommendations for legal restrictions on pornography. 
Perhaps most controversially, the commission encouraged religious 
and political groups to file complaints, join with police to root out law- 
breakers, and boycott retailers selling objectionable sexual material. 
Interestingly, however, it failed to list Playboy and Penthouse among 
the forty-five hundred titles it cited as pornographic. Meese himself 
tried to reassure skeptics that the Justice Department “is not going to 
engage in any censorship that violates the First Amendment.” 25 

The attorney general, however, did not discuss the internal split 
that had divided the commission as it attempted to formulate its final 
report. The original version, drafted by Sears and the staff, proved 
so moralistic and heavy-handed that a majority rejected it. Professor 
Schauer, describing the draft as “one-sided and oversimplified,” 
took it upon himself to write a new one that became the basis for 
the report. Even so, two commissioners, Judith Becker and Ellen 
Levine, refused to sign the final product and authored a twenty-page 
dissenting report. Complaining that a rush to meet deadlines had 
caused confusion, they sharply disputed the reports claim of a con- 
nection between pornography and sexual violence. “No self-respect- 
ing investigator would accept conclusions based on such a study,” 
they wrote. Moreover, many researchers on sexual materials, vio- 
lence, and crime claimed that the Meese Commission had distorted 
their work in drawing its conclusions. Edward Donnerstein, from 
the University of Wisconsin, whose research was cited by the panel, 
insisted that the commission had reached “bizarre” conclusions, while 
Neil Malamuth and Murray Strauss, from UCLA and the University 
of New Hampshire, complained that their work had been misused in 
an attempt to buttress preordained conclusions. 26 

The report generated immediate controversy. Jerry Falwell and 
Pat Robertson approved it as “a good and healthy report” and part of 
“a definite spiritual revival” in America. Catharine MacKinnon and 
Women Against Pornography endorsed it as “a major breakthrough 
in raising the consciousness of the country.” Some conservative 
columnists, such as Cal Thomas, also approved, contending that 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


379 


society had a right to establish the minimum standards by which it 
wished to live. 27 

But most assessments rejected the Meese Commission Report on 
grounds of free speech and anticensorship. Liberals characterized it 
as a blunderbuss legal attack on behalf of reactionary moral crusaders. 
A memorable liberal dismissal came in a, New Republic article cleverly 
titled “Big Boobs,” by Hendrik Hertzberg. It was accompanied by 
a hilarious cover drawing of Meese as a pinup in the style of Alberto 
Vargas: lounging in a sultry pose with one leg bent provocatively, a 
hand propped demurely behind his head, a come-hither look on his 
face, tie askew, bare feet arched in anticipation. As editor Michael 
Kinsley noted puckishly, “Our idea is that in all those empty slots 
in 7-Elevens where they used to sell Playboy and Penthouse , now 
they use them for the New Republic .” Many conservatives demurred 
as well. William F. Buckley deplored pornography but chastised the 
commission for sending the intimidating Sears letter and accepting 
a mandate it could not possibly fulfill. The National Review asserted 
that while pornography degraded the quality of American life, the 
panel had failed to establish its thesis empirically. In a special essay, 
“The Individual Is Sovereign,” Time argued on behalf of a rule regard- 
ing privacy and sexual choices: “Uncle Sam, and all other uninvited 
guests, keep out.” 28 

Hefner reacted scornfully to the Meese Commission Report. In 
a Playboy editorial, he described it as a blueprint for “sex vigilantes” 
and quoted Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, who had 
described sexuality as an intimate affair involving “the most compre- 
hensive of rights and the most valued by civilized men: namely, the 
right to be let alone.” At issue, Hefner passionately insisted in a radio 
interview, was sexual freedom. “Whether its related to censorship 
or . . . related to personal privacy in the bedroom, that is a fight we 
have been fighting in Playboy for some 32 years, and it is one that 
I believe in wholeheartedly,” he maintained. “The sexual revolution 
is a quest for sexual freedom, both to read and to do in your bedroom 
what you want to do. If freedom has become passe, then we are in 
very serious trouble.” 29 

Most observers agreed with Hefner, but their commentary 
should have unsettled the Playboy publisher. Even as they opposed 
censorship, defended free speech, and denounced moralistic restric- 
tions from extremists on the right or left, most opponents of the 



380 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Meese Commission took pains to emphasize that they were bothered 
by the sexual invasion of American life. They distanced themselves 
from a Playboy ethos they found distasteful. A series of editorials 
and columns in the liberal New York Times, for example, granted, 
“There is a pornography problem in the United States. Offensively 
explicit sex and violence are dispensed with too little regard for 
the rights and sensibilities of those who want themselves or their 
children shielded from such material.” They observed that among rea- 
sonable citizens “millions do worry, uneasily and conscientiously” 
about the easy availability of pornographic material in modern 
America. The columnist Anna Quindlen, while endorsing sexual 
liberation and opposing censorship, complained that sexual images 
had become so pervasive that she constantly had to try and explain 
them to her young child. Playboy had the right to depict nudity, she 
wrote, but “I think the centerfolds are simply silly, and that all those 
women miming sexual ecstasy in bizarre undergarments succeed 
only in looking as if they had bad colds.” The predominant liberal 
position on erotic images — lewd, silly, offensive, problematic, but 
legally protected — did not exactly constitute a ringing endorsement 
of Playboy values. 30 

Thus Hefner s triumph over the Meese Commission played out as 
a costly victory. The direct political threat largely evaporated, but a 
significant problem remained. The attorney generals panel, with its 
two-front ideological assault from the Moral Majority and the feminist 
left, highlighted how the evolution of American social and cultural 
values by the 1980s had put the Playboy Philosophy on the defen- 
sive. “The current atmosphere does seem to be a part of a national 
retrenchment from the giddy permissiveness of the 60s and 70s,” 
Time observed. The conservative backlash to the Age of Aquarius, the 
revolution in womens rights, and the liberal retreat from licentious- 
ness increasingly isolated Hefner in the public sphere. Many now saw 
him as an agent of sexual manipulation: undermining tradition for 
conservatives, encouraging female subordination for many feminists, 
and promoting distasteful license for many liberals. 31 

In the middle of this ideological struggle, a beleaguered Hefner 
suffered an assault from an unexpected direction. A friend launched a 
brutal surprise attack that denounced him personally, vilified his val- 
ues, and supported the accusations of exploitation coming from the 
Moral Majority and radical feminists. Involving as it did the horrific 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


381 


murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten, this shocking onslaught 
caused more pain and trauma than perhaps any other single event 
in Hefners life. 


Ill 

In the summer of 1984, the film director Peter Bogdanovich published 
The Killing of the Unicom: Dorothy Stratten, 1960-1980. In this 
emotional and deeply personal book, the boyfriend of the Playmate 
and budding actress made a stunning allegation. While her estranged 
husband Paul Snider had murdered her four years earlier, he said, 
responsibility for the horrifying death lay elsewhere. Most people 
blamed the “eternal triangle” of husband, wife, and lover: 

But as I tried to find the truth, I discovered a fourth side to the 
figure — hidden and dark. Eventually there would be no doubt 
in my mind that if the shadowy Hefner-side of the pyramid had 
never existed, Dorothy would not have died. She could have 
dealt with Paul Snider, a small-town pimp who first spotted 
and sold her, but she could not handle the slick professional 
machinery of the Playboy sex factory, nor the continual efforts 
of its founder to bring her into his personal fold, no matter 
what she wanted. 

In Bogdanovichs words, “As I found out more and more about 
Hefners role in the events, my rage toward him grew.” 32 

This attack struck Hefner with full force. For page after page, 
Bogdanovich unfolded a relentless indictment of the publisher and 
his operation, claiming that they had caused the demise of his beloved 
girlfriend. He charged this “Walt Disney of pornography” with leading 
an exploitative lifestyle that destroyed women within it. Orgies at 
the mansion, he contended, depended on a continuous supply of 
fresh-faced, naive females — “the new girl from Iowa, or Missouri, 
or Montana” — who would be sexually used, passed around among 
Hefners friends, and leered at by voyeurs. Stratten had walked into 
this trap, Bogdanovich argued. Hefner yearned to confirm his entry 
into Hollywood society and “wanted a real sex goddess to emerge 
from the pages of Playboy.” The young woman filled the bill. 33 



382 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Bogdanovich claimed that Stratten tearfully had confided to him 
that shortly after she had arrived at the mansion, Hefner had forced 
himself on her sexually during a late-night Jacuzzi session, an incident that 
left her bereft and bitter. During subsequent magazine shoots, the 
publisher had pressured her to submit to ever more raunchy photos 
that brought her to tears as photographers gave her a puppy to calm 
her frazzled nerves. These experiences finally drove Stratten to marry 
Paul Snider out of desperation, Bogdanovich wrote, and when 
Hefner banned the small-time hustler from the mansion, murder 
had resulted. But the blame spread farther. “In truth, doesn’t Playboy 
figuratively seduce and rape young women? Live off them? Bidicule 
their gender? Destroy their lives?” wrote the director. “Playboy and 
its kindred porno mills continue to grind up women and spit them out 
for the masturbatory pleasure of men the world over.” Bogdanovich’s 
summation pictured Hefner as “a hygienic super-pimp” and his grand 
sexual revolution little more than a male ruse “under the guise of 
liberalism and equality. Its true purpose was to make things easier 
for the men to get laid.” Playboy made women into sexual objects 
and encouraged “sordid and violent male crimes like the one which 
destroyed Dorothy.” In Bogdanovich’s conclusion, “All of this has 
been the result of Hefner’s great con.” 34 

Bogdanovich, ironically, had been a friend of Hefner’s. They had 
become acquainted in 1976, and their shared love of Hollywood 
movies nurtured a bond. Bogdanovich was put on the “gate list” at the 
mansion, which meant he could come on the property whenever he 
pleased, and he visited frequently — fifty-two times between 1976 and 
1980. He called Hefner numerous times and attended Thanksgiving 
dinner in 1977 and Christmas dinner in 1978 along with a small circle 
of the publisher’s friends. Bogdanovich first met Stratten at the man- 
sion, of course, and had confided to Hefner about their developing 
love affair. When the publisher received the horrible call from the 
police about Stratten’s murder, he immediately phoned Bogdanovich 
and over subsequent days offered solace and comfort to the devas- 
tated director. Thus Hefner was dumbfounded when he perused an 
advance copy of the manuscript in the spring of 1984. “This is so crazy,” 
he thought. “It will never be published. The basic theme is a lie.” 35 
Hefner’s shock soon intensified. William Morrow published the 
book over the objections of Hefner’s attorneys — the publisher had 
hired the prestigious Washington law firm of Edward Bennett Williams 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


383 


to object to the books libels — by making a few cosmetic changes. Then 
Bogdanovich launched an eight-city publicity tour that took him to 
television shows, public talks, and newspaper interviews where he 
denounced Hefner and Playboy on NBC’s Today show, ABCs Good 
Morning America, and CBSs Nightwatch. Throughout, he claimed 
that while Stratten had been trapped by Paul Snider, “the larger trap 
was the one he [Hefner] lured her into — the whole Playboy world.” 
The director elaborated on how his disillusioned girlfriend came to 
feel that “she had been used like a game, like a pinball machine.” 
Hefner and Playboy were “a social poison which destroys women like 
Dorothy Stratten.” 36 

Flogging his book, Bogdanovich appeared as a born-again femi- 
nist. He told the press that attorneys for the Stratten estate had fded 
an amicus curiae brief in support of the antipomography legislation in 
Minneapolis drafted by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, 
and testified in behalf of a similar ordinance proposed for Los Angeles. 
Bogdanovich sent a message to an antipornography rally held at 
Stanford University that denounced the “Playboy pornography mills” 
and reported that many women appearing in the magazine had con- 
tacted him to testify as to “what Playboy has really done to them. It 
exploits them — their minds, their bodies, their dreams.” 37 

Bogdanovichs attack appalled and angered Hefner. Throughout 
the fall of 1984 and early 1985 he issued impassioned denials of 
culpability, asserting that the director, consumed by grief and guilt, 
had penned “an outrageous work of fiction which does a terrible injus- 
tice to Hugh Hefner and others at Playboy.” The distraught publisher 
described The Killing of the Unicorn as a “total fabrication,” a “crazy 
story,” and a “guilt trip.” He vehemently denied every accusation, 
insisting that Stratten delighted in her association with Playboy and 
enjoyed a warm friendship with him. Hefner could only explain the 
book as the authors “pathological obsession. I think that what he has 
set up and is attacking here is behavior which he himself has done. In 
effect, what he is calling Hefner is really his own dark side.” 38 

Hefner became fixated on refuting The Killing of the Unicorn. 
According to his assistant, Lisa Loving, for months the publisher 
“never thought about anything else. He was completely consumed.” 
When friends or associates would suggest gently that he should let 
it go, arguing that no one really believed Bogdanovich and that it 
would blow over, Hefner angrily rejected the advice. “It truly, truly 



384 


MR. PLAYBOY 


devastated him,” said Loving. “He was worried about how people 
would perceive him. ... It was the most horrible thing that any- 
one could ever say about him. And it truly did work him into a com- 
plete frenzy .” 39 

Hefners obsession stemmed from deep sources. He saw the book 
as an unjust betrayal of friendship from someone he had treated 
well. The challenge to his personal integrity disturbed him even 
more. According to Murray Fisher, a Playboy editor and friend, 
Unicom “was his worst nightmare come true. . . . He absolutely had to 
prove that he was right because this was a personal attack on him.” But 
perhaps most importantly, Hefner understood Bogdanovich’s book to 
be an attack on the meaning of his whole adult life. Bitter criticism 
from the fundamentalist-feminist alliance had worn Hefner down, 
and The Killing of the Unicom seemed to penetrate his defenses 
to reach a soft spot of insecurity. As they combed through the text 
comma by comma, Loving noticed, “He kept asking, ‘Am I really 
like that?’” Hefner confessed privately, “The way I am perceived by 
others who are important to me is one of the most important things in 
my life and always has been. And there is something in this that just 
hits very close to home in terms of . . . what I’m all about .” 40 

Self-righteously angry, Hefner became convinced that mental 
instability lay behind the assault. He solicited a private evaluation of 
the author from a prominent Chicago psychiatrist, who concluded 
that the film director was suffering from severe depression, paranoia, 
and possibly psychosis. Hefner also got wind of Bogdanovich’s odd 
behavior toward Louise Hoogstraten, Dorothy’s thirteen-year-old 
sister, and Nelly, the girls’ mother, from a private security agent 
who had worked for the director. The improprieties reported by this 
source were shocking . 41 

As Hefner defended himself, the critical reaction to The Killing of 
the Unicom came in. Reviews were almost universally negative. A few 
commentators found the book to be tender, moving, and convincing, 
but most saw it as maudlin, self-justifying, and exploitative in its own 
way. Critics complained that Bogdanovich, while pointing the finger of 
blame, seemed oblivious to his own sexist susceptibility to “the whore/ 
Madonna complex” in his view of women. Typically, they condemned 
the book as “simplistic” and concluded that “Bogdanovich’s drippy, shrill 
account fails both as memoir and pseudo-sociology. Self-justification, 
revenge, and exploitation with a sugary, sanctimonious facade .” 42 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


385 


Even so, Playboy and its publisher took a battering. Both feminists 
and fundamentalists, of course, in the mold of the Meese Commission, 
saw the book as confirming the sleazy, destructive immorality of the 
Playboy lifestyle. The noted feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich 
wrote that Unicom, while self-delusional and mawkish, lent credence 
to the central theme of antipornography feminists: “porn leads to 
rape leads to murder; women are victims; and most men . . . have 
mayhem on their minds.” In her words, “It says something about 
Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner, and his entire commercial empire 
that the best-known Playmate of all time is best known for having been 
tortured and brutally murdered.” Conservatives concurred, blam- 
ing Hefner for creating a “dark world into which a naive, innocent 
Canadian girl . . . could be dragged and ultimately consumed.” 43 

More disturbingly for Hefner, however, even hostile reviews of 
Unicorn seemed to accept its depiction of an exploitative Playboy 
world. While dismissing Unicorn, they noted the “scathing indict- 
ment of Hefner and his pals” and described him as a “desiccated 
hedonist” who cavorted in his “tacky baroque crash pad, the Playboy 
Mansion West.” One reviewer observed that while the book failed, 
its “most fascinating passages come with Bogdanovich’s searing 
behind-the-scenes look at the Playboy lifestyle.” The New Republic 
accepted the authors “devastating portrait of Hefner,” while the 
respected critic Charles Champlin, in the Los Angeles Times, 
described Unicom as “overwrought” but granted its “depressing and 
persuasive indictment — the most accusing yet — of Hugh Hefner, his 
private life and his public philosophy, and their raunchy confluence 
in the Playboy Mansion West in Holmby Hills.” Bogdanovich’s book, 
for all its weaknesses, he wrote, demonstrated how “the Hefner phi- 
losophy looks retrograde, a denial of the real implications of the 
sexual revolution.” 44 

Such assaults finally became more than Hefner could bear. Under 
tremendous, self-imposed pressure to clear his name, he suffered a 
stroke that laid him low for several weeks. Then on April 1, 1985, 
against the advice of his daughter and associates, he held a press con- 
ference at the mansion. In front of dozens of reporters and several 
television crews, he accused Bogdanovich of not only systematically 
spreading lies, but of seducing both Louise Hoogstraten, Dorothy’s 
underage sister, and Nelly Schaap, her mother, and breaking up the 
marriage of the latter. When a reporter asked if Bogdanovich actually 



386 


MR. PLAYBOY 


had made love to the teenage Louise, Hefner replied, “Without 
question,” and opined that he should be prosecuted for the crime. He 
then introduced Burl Eldridge, Nelly’s estranged husband and Louise’s 
stepfather, who made a statement supporting Hefners charges. 45 

Within days, Louise Hoogstraten filed a lawsuit against Hefner for 
slander, libel, and invasion of privacy. Securing legal representation 
from the noted feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, she asked for restitu- 
tion in the amount of $5 million. A confident Hefner asserted, “It 
appears the truth will finally be known.” Indeed, six months later 
Hoogstraten dropped the lawsuit. After a handful of depositions 
were taken, Allred fled the case and, uncharacteristically, had lit- 
tle to say about the decision. “Everything is governed by attorney- 
client privilege,” she noted tersely. Hefner believed he knew the 
reason: “She thought she had a women’s-rights guy on her hands. 
And what she had was something else again.” Then Bogdanovich 
issued an apology to Hefner as the suit was dropped. “All of us who 
loved Dorothy, and I know Hugh Hefner was one of these, have been 
through the roughest of times, and maybe the healing process may 
now be accelerated. I am sorry if Mr. Hefners health has suffered 
because of things I have said or written.” 46 

Ultimately, Hefner was vindicated. As the dust settled, it became 
clear that Bogdanovich’s accusations about Hefner were uniformly 
false. The story of Hefner’s supposed seduction/rape of Stratten, 
as well as much other information in Unicom, it turned out, was 
a fabrication from Patrick Curtis. The former husband of Baquel 
Welch, Curtis had frequented the mansion for several years before 
being banished for dishonesty, and subsequently was caught out 
in a highly publicized lie when he claimed to be a decorated 
fighter pilot in the Marine Corps; in actuality he had never served 
in the military. Apparently in retaliation for the banishment, Curtis 
had fed Bogdanovich stories that he later retracted in a signed affida- 
vit. The puppy that had allegedly been given to Stratten as a ploy to 
quell her hysteria over nude photographs turned out to be a gift from 
Playboy photo editor Marilyn Grabowski, who had hoped it would 
cheer her up during her escalating fights with her husband, Paul 
Snider. Delighted, she named it Marston after Hefner’s middle name. 
Stratten’s supposed despair about her involvement with Playboy was 
belied by a letter of appreciation to Hefner describing her arrival 
in Los Angeles as the “beginning to a whole new life for me. . . . 



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS 


387 


I am amazed at the new areas I keep finding in myself, and keep 
discovering more and more of life. ... I am so happy that Playboy 
has been, and will be, a part of my life. And, Mr. Hefner, Playboy, of 
course, is you. Love always, Dorothy Stratten.” In a footnote to this 
episode, in 1989 Bogdanovich married Louise Hoogstraten as her 
mother publicly bewailed the event, while some fifteen years later 
Louise turned to Hefner for support during an ugly divorce from the 
film director. 47 

As the Bogdanovich controversy ground to a halt, Hefner expressed 
delight “that my true relationship with Dorothy Stratten has been 
clarified.” But his victory came with many casualties. This unseemly 
scandal seemed to grip and damage everyone who touched it. Most 
commentators were disgusted by the Bogdanovich-Hefner dispute 
(even as they rushed to write about it), describing it as “a media 
circus” and a “public relations war.” They saw the director as a self- 
righteous twister of facts, while one wrote, “It was sad, somehow, 
watching Hugh Hefner . . . maligning the reputation of a teen-age girl 
and bickering over the bones of a Playboy Playmate five years dead.” 
Even Hefner confessed to Rolling Stone that the feud was “just so 
bad-taste Hollywood” it made him sick. 48 

In a memo written early in the Unicom quarrel, Playboy editor 
Arthur Kretchmer had warned Hefner against overreacting to the 
book. “In your effort to destroy Bogdanovich s credibility, you will 
destroy your own,” he argued. Ugly sexual accusations against the film 
director, even if they were true, would only cause people to recoil as 
they saw a victim “defending himself by accusing his accuser of kiddie 
sex. Instead of being seen as a good guy, a man victimized by a guilt- 
ridden, scapegoating parasite, you’ll be one of the players in a taw- 
dry story.” Kretchmer’s crystal ball proved to be accurate. For many, 
Hefners vindication was overshadowed by the flurry of accusations 
and counteraccusations about orgies, underage sex, attempted rape, 
pornographic media mills, pathological lovers, and jilted, murderous 
husbands. Far from appearing glamorous, playful, and avant-garde, 
Hefners world appeared to many observers through a haze of vulgar, 
poisonous smog. The frenzied mudslinging of the Bogdanovich con- 
troversy, in this larger sense, only contributed to Playboys troubles 
in the age of Reagan. 49 

Ultimately, however, the private impact of the Bogdanovich con- 
flict was even more profound for Hefner than its public implications. 



388 


MR. PLAYBOY 


Again, Kretchmer proved prescient. Early on, he cautioned Hefner 
about “the intensity of your feelings” and warned that going after the 
Unicom author was “almost guaranteed to tear you to pieces.” By 
early 1985, such disintegration became apparent. In the middle of 
the controversy, before he knew how things would play out, Hefner 
grimly internalized stress as he absorbed a drubbing in the press and 
struggled to defend his integrity. Additional pressures came from the 
disastrous Carrie Leigh relationship and the political bludgeoning 
from the Meese Commission. Approaching the edge of emotional 
and physical exhaustion, a beleaguered Hefner finally collapsed. 50 



PART V 


RESURGENCE 




19 


The Bride Wore Clothes 


I n the early spring of 1985, Hugh Hefner suffered a physical breakdown. 
I This health crisis, caused by escalating stress in his personal and 
I professional life, frightened him badly and marked the nadir of 
this difficult period. An unorthodox medical treatment orchestrated 
by his personal physician restored him to normal functioning in a 
surprisingly short time, but the experience shook him and prompted 
a reevaluation of priorities. It liberated the publisher to cut through 
the entanglements of the Dorothy Stratten controversy and hold the 
press conference exposing his nemesis, Peter Bogdanovich. It also 
prompted him to adopt a healthier lifestyle as he slowed down, gave 
up smoking, changed his diet, and began to exercise. 

In a deeper sense, however, Hefners stroke inspired him to recon- 
sider his personal life. Rethinking his priorities, he initiated a search 
for succor and stability that gradually led to the last thing many 
people ever expected to see: matrimony, monogamy, and a family. 
Initially, he tried to create a stable bond with his current girlfriend, 
Carrie Leigh, but the growing volatility of their relationship bred 
disenchantment. When that romance crumbled, he turned elsewhere 
late in the decade and fell deeply in love with a young woman newly 


391 



392 


MR. PLAYBOY 


arrived at the mansion. To the shock of many observers, they married 
within a short time. 

Mr. Playboy transformed himself once again as he took on the 
unfamiliar role of husband and father. Just as Hefner and Playboy 
had mirrored American social evolution in earlier decades, now, too, 
his embrace of an orthodox family life mirrored what some observers 
termed the “new traditionalism” of the 1990s. As Hefner entered his 
autumn years, he seemed to come full circle from rebellion to rea- 
sonableness, from hedonistic bachelor to dedicated family man. The 
process proved to be as dramatic as it was unexpected. 


I 

In the early morning hours of March 7, 1985, Hugh Hefner 
was perusing the next days Los Angeles Times in his bedroom 
suite when he found himself unable to follow the article or 
comprehend the headline. He called his doctor, who told him to take 
an aspirin and go to sleep. By next morning, however, the symptoms 
had grown worse. When he phoned his executive assistant, Mary 
O’Connor, he slurred his speech and struggled to express simple 
thoughts. Staff rushed to his side and noticed that the right side of 
his face was palsied. Immediately, they called his doctor and the pub- 
lisher went for a series of tests that afternoon. A neurologist asked 
him to name ordinary items — buttons on a shirt, a tie, a belt — but 
the publisher could not do so. He also lost the ability to read, could 
use his right hand only clumsily, and appeared mildly disoriented. 
An MRI at a Pasadena hospital a short time later — he was whisked 
there by helicopter — confirmed the diagnosis. Hefner had suffered 
a stroke. 1 

Over the next several days, Hefners situation remained serious 
as his neurological signs continued fluctuating. Morbidly afraid of 
hospitals, he prevailed upon his close friend and physician, Dr. Mark 
Saginor, to supervise a course of treatment at the mansion. Saginor, 
concluding that anxiety reduction was crucial to recovery, agreed and 
moved into a guest bedroom to supervise around-the-clock care. He 
consulted the noted neurologist Dr. Clark Espy, and they concluded 
that Hefner had suffered a moderately severe episode of RIND, 
or reversible ischemic neurological deficit. They also agreed on a 



THE BRIDE WORE CLOTHES 


393 


plan of treatment that centered on the aggressive administration of 
high doses of dexamethasone, a research medication. This unusual 
approach proved remarkably successful, and within a few days Hefner 
began to recover. Complete recuperation took several months, how- 
ever. Christie Hefner, who flew to Los Angeles to comfort her father 
not long after the stroke, entered his bedroom and saw him reading 
a book in bed. Her surprise turned to despair when it became appar- 
ent that he was presenting a brave front — the book was upside down. 
Carrie Leigh’s flightiness also muddied the waters. She devoted her- 
self to nursing Hefner for several weeks, but then in the middle of 
the crisis presented him with a demand for marriage. When Hefner 
demurred, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter and fled the mansion 
in early April, only to return several weeks later. 2 

Hefner, along with his close friends and associates, had little doubt 
as to what had brought on the stroke — stress, caused both by the 
turbulent Carrie Leigh relationship and the nasty accusations leveled 
by Bogdanovich. The former kept his personal life in a constant state 
of tension, while the latter, as Hefner confessed in an interview later 
in 1985, “proved absolutely devastating for me.” He had heeded his 
advisers by limiting his response to The Killing of the Unicom, but 
repressing his anger created enormous tension, especially when some 
observers suggested, in his words, that “I was avoiding the confronta- 
tion because I had something to hide.” Moreover, a dynamic of self- 
punishment seemed to be at work. Worn down by attacks from the 
Moral Majority and radical feminists, weary from dealing with Leigh’s 
antics, and reeling from the hostile publicity generated by Unicom, 
Hefner, for one of the few times in his life, began to doubt himself. 
“I suppose I half-believed what Bogdanovich was saying about me,” 
he admitted later. “That’s what brought the stroke on.” 3 

But Hefner quickly recovered his equilibrium. On March 20 
he released a statement to the press explaining his recovery from 
this medical trauma, which he described as ‘“a stroke of luck’ that 
I fully expect will change the direction of my life.” Indeed, it did. 
First, he interpreted it as releasing him emotionally to reply fully to 
Peter Bogdanovich’s accusations, and the mansion press conference 
was the result. The stroke also prompted Hefner to slow down and 
adopt a more easygoing attitude toward life. It “gave me permission 
in a single day to drop the luggage of my lifetime,” he explained. 
“The priorities in a person’s life shift very dramatically in the most 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


positive kind of way.” Cognizant of his mortality, he quit smoking his 
pipe, began eating more healthy foods, gave up Pepsi for Diet Pepsi, 
and began to exercise moderately. He also decided to begin work on 
an autobiography — “looking for the reasons behind why Pve lived my 
life the way I have,” in his words — as a way of understanding himself 
and his past. 4 

Perhaps most significantly, the stroke prompted Hefner to recon- 
sider his romantic life in all of its emotional and sexual complexity. 
He began to seriously ponder the possibility of a more lasting rela- 
tionship. Such an impulse had flickered in the early 1980s, first with 
Shannon Tweed and then with Carrie Leigh, but now it became more 
concerted. In the aftermath of the stroke, he intensified his efforts 
to settle down with Leigh over the next two years, an impulse that 
partly explained his baffling patience with her erratic behavior. But 
the effort fizzled as their stormy relationship blew hot and cold, and 
Leigh departed for good in early 1988. 5 

But Hefners growing desire for permanence remained in place. 
His good friends Dick and Anne Stewart once thought they were 
alone in a room of the mansion as they sat together, smooching and 
laughing about some incident in years past. “We didn’t realize that Hef 
was standing at the door,” Anne recalled. “He came in and said, ‘Wow, 
that’s something I’ve never had — a memory to share with a girlfriend 
from a long time ago.’” While his tone was joking, she sensed that 
he envied their closeness. Dick added, “I always had the feeling that 
he admired our relationship because we were lovers and buddies.” 
Always believing that the best cure for a failed love affair was to find 
another one quickly, Hefner responded to Carrie Leigh’s departure 
by looking for another romance. He did not have to wait long. 6 


II 

Hefner’s growing desire for emotional permanence and security 
soon found an object. Kimberly Conrad, a tall, statuesque, strik- 
ingly beautiful twenty-four-year-old honey blonde, had first visited 
the mansion on May 22, 1987, and spent several days shooting her 
upcoming centerfold photos. On her Playmate Data Sheet, she listed 
her ambitions to continue modeling and then become a commercial 
real estate agent. “I want to lead a fulfilling life,” she wrote. “Travel, 



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experience new places, meet lots of people, and do well in my career 
and personal life.” But with Carrie Leigh still around, Conrad kept 
her distance from Hefner. 7 

On January 19, 1988, however, she returned to the mansion as 
Miss January to shoot a future Playboy pictorial, this time with the 
famed photographer Helmut Newton. With Leigh now gone for 
good, Conrads beauty and pleasant manner caught Hefners eye. He 
chatted with her, but she dodged his invitation to screen a movie 
and kept a girlfriend nearby for emotional protection. He finally 
said, “Would you like to spend some time with me?” She replied, 
“Well, I don’t really know you.” He said, “How are you going to get 
to know me if you don’t spend some time with me?” She conceded 
his logic, and they spent the next three hours talking; by the end of 
the evening, in Hefner’s words, “we knew that we cared about one 
another.” The publisher had flowers put in her room, and invited 
her to return to the mansion quickly for another visit. Conrad came 
back for the Super Bowl weekend ten days later, and went out for 
dinner with Hefner, Dick and Anne Stewart, John Dante, and Keith 
Hefner. She found the publisher to be gentlemanly, attentive, and 
a lot of fun. In her words, “We had a blast and we really liked each 
other.” The spark of romance quickly burst into flame. At Hefner’s 
invitation, she moved into the mansion in early February and the two 
became a couple. 8 

Like Hefner’s last two girlfriends, Conrad was Canadian. Born in 
Moulton, Alabama, on August 6, 1963, she had moved with her fam- 
ily to Beno, Nevada, four years later, and then to Vancouver. Conrad 
grew up as the youngest among three sisters and a brother in the 
affluent suburb of West Vancouver, that city’s equivalent of Beverly 
Hills. Her mother had divorced and remarried, and her stepfather 
was a successful financier. She experienced a traditional upbring- 
ing with a conscientious mother, a love of animals, and days filled 
with sporting activities such as squash, water skiing, and racquetball. 
By adolescence, Conrad had developed a reserved manner with a 
touch of quirky humor, strong family attachments, and a set of con- 
ventional, even conservative social values. She began to model in 
high school and after graduation made it a career. After promoting a 
host of local and regional products, she spent two stints in New York 
City and eventually appeared in commercials for McDonald’s and 
Levi’s jeans. 9 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


She first came into contact with Playboy in Vancouver through Ken 
Honey, the photographer who had discovered a number of Canadian 
models for the magazine over the years, including Dorothy Stratten. 
He first noticed Conrad when perusing some modeling shots, but she 
was only seventeen, so he urged her to contact him in a few years 
for some test photos. Being rather reserved and traditional, she had 
little interest. But several years later, after breaking up with a longtime 
boyfriend and primed for a “shock value” gesture, she called up Honey 
and said she was ready to pose for test shots. He took the photos, sent 
them to Los Angeles, and Playboy expressed an immediate interest. 
The young Canadian flew down, met with photo editor Marilyn 
Grabowski, and was slated to become the first Playmate of 1988. 10 

When she attracted Hefners attention early that year, Conrad 
seemed to embody everything that he sought in a woman. A con- 
firmed homebody, she liked nothing more than staying in comfort- 
able domestic surroundings watching movies and tending to animals. 
Reserved and sweet-tempered, she mixed easily with people but pre- 
ferred to stay in the background rather than be the center of atten- 
tion. Gorgeous yet modest in her clothing tastes, she exhibited a 
natural beauty that contrasted with her predecessors plastic surgery 
and glitzy fashion sense. With no interest in a Hollywood career, she 
appeared content to focus on Hefner and their life together when 
they became a couple. Conrad reconciled some of the publishers 
conflicted desires by being both a stunning centerfold and a devoted, 
traditional woman. Hefner was smitten. “I can’t believe how all of this 
has worked out,” he told USA Today in March 1988. “Out of nowhere, 
to have this angel arrive and change everything. How lucky can a 
guy get?” 1 ! 

Hefners circle of mansion friends was almost as infatuated as he 
was. After the turmoil of the previous half decade, they saw Conrads 
calming, caring influence as a godsend. As she sat watching weekend 
movies with Hefner, while he smilingly welcomed her menagerie of 
dogs and cats into his home, onlookers were thrilled. They saw her 
as a warm, wonderful, down-to-earth woman with no agendas and 
no hang-ups. “Kimberly is perfect for him,” observed Hefners old 
friend Joni Mattis. 12 

As the romance bloomed, it revived Hefner emotionally. Friends 
noticed that he seemed to shed ten years overnight as his step 
quickened and his good-humored enthusiasm for life bubbled up. 



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In Conrads company, he seemed happily at peace with the world. 
Jessica Hahn described them acting like “a couple of teenagers who 
just got pinned and were going steady,” while Hefner crony Richard 
Brooks observed, “Everything about her is reassuring to him and 
when he sees her it is like an electric spark hits him, like a twenty year 
old.” The publisher seemed euphoric. “In this relationship, I have 
found something I never found before,” he told the New York Times. 
“I never thought I would find it.” An incurable romantic, he saw their 
love as the essential element that animated his existence: “It is the 
equivalent of life for me.” 13 

Over the next few months, this whirlwind romance gathered speed, 
and soon Hefner stood ready to do the unthinkable. Notoriously 
averse to matrimony, he had often repeated the Woody Allen quip 
that “marriage is the death of hope.” But now he threw his past reser- 
vations to the wind. On the evening of July 23, 1988, after watching 
a movie, White Mischief, with friends at the mansion and playing 
foosball together in the gamehouse, the couple took a walk and 
stopped at the wishing well on the front lawn. “Will you marry me?” 
Hefner asked. “Do I have to tell you right now?” she replied, and, 
slightly flustered, he stammered, “No, of course not.” Conrad then 
laughed and said, “I can’t imagine life without you. Yes, I will marry 
you.” Later that evening, Conrad wrote down her hope that “Hef 
and I stay together forever because I love him so much and he 
adores and loves me.” A short time later, Hefner presented her with 
a five-and-a-half-carat diamond engagement ring. 14 

It was a genuine love match. In the many interviews that accom- 
panied their engagement announcement, the couple appeared “as 
gooey and mushy as any lovebirds,” as one reporter put it. “They fin- 
ish each others sentences. They like to putter around the house. It’s 
enough to send a person into insulin shock.” Conrad expressed confi- 
dence that her famous fiance was ready to settle down. “I think he has 
sown his wild oats. I know he has,” she said. “If I didn’t feel that he 
has, or if I felt he would cheat on me, then I would not be married to 
him.” Describing him as a “soul mate,” she often grew teary-eyed in 
talking about the closeness of their relationship. Conrad stressed the 
depth of her commitment, explaining that he had become the “main 
focus” of her life. Hefner reciprocated her devotion. “This is the way 
you’d like it to be,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times. “There’s 
a line in the film Pennies From Heaven which goes something like, 



398 


MR. PLAYBOY 


‘Somewhere there must be a world where the words to the songs are 
true.’ And it’s difficult for me to even say that line without getting a 
little silly, a little teary-eyed.” 15 

Hefner justified his decision to wed as an update, not a rejection, 
of the Playboy Philosophy. He romanticized marriage. In a long inter- 
view with a reporter from the Sacramento Bee, he argued that his 
magazine focused on the romantic relationship between men and 
women, and the sexual pleasure that should invigorate it. Marriage, 
in and of itself, he now insisted, did not belie that emphasis. “In all 
of life, we make compromises between the adventure of it and the 
security of it — the unknown and the known,” he mused. “One of 
the reasons I avoided marriage all these years is that I think in many 
instances marriage, and the certainty of it, destroys romance. I don’t 
care very much about marriage, per se. I care very much about love 
and romance.” Now, the publisher was convinced, he had found a 
mate with whom romance would flourish, not wither. 16 

Hefner’s former girlfriends saw more practical factors at work. 
Barbi Benton credited his new fiancee’s willingness to mold herself 
to his wishes. “She likes to stay inside and not go out to dinner. She 
has no anxiety about being an actress. She has his interests always in 
mind,” she commented. Sondra Theodore sensed social and biologi- 
cal pressures at work. “Everyone he had been involved with is mar- 
ried and having babies,” she observed. “He knows it’s time to lead 
a more conventional life.” Shannon Tweed, with typical bluntness, 
attributed it to his desire for a new challenge: “He’s done it all and 
this is what’s left.” 17 

As the date for the wedding approached, a flurry of activity 
dominated mansion life. On April 25, 1989, Hefner, in the annual cer- 
emony, announced that Conrad had been chosen as Playmate of the 
Year. Two months later, the cover of the June issue proclaimed, “Thi s 
Playmate of the Year Is a Playmate for a Lifetime.” The accompanying 
piece presented a gallery of enticing photographs of Conrad, along 
with a long description of her romance with Hefner, their engagement, 
and the closeness of their relationship. As a Playboy writer noted 
breathlessly, “It will be one of the most startling developments of the 
century if Hef, whose career has symbolized bachelorhood, comes 
to represent marriage, American style, in the Nineties.” Meanwhile, 
Conrad chose an off-white gown created by the New York designer 
Jim Hjelm, while the Los Angeles designer and friend Bick Pallack 



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created a 1940s-look tuxedo with white silk bow tie for Hefner. Colin 
Cowie, a young Englishman, became the wedding coordinator and 
spent five hectic weeks organizing the affair. Conrads friends gave 
her a traditional bridal shower, but Hefner declined the counterpart. 
“I had a bachelor party for the last 30 years,” he joked. “I don’t need 
one now.” 18 

Finally, on July 1, 1989, in an event that few observers of 
Mr. Playboy ever expected to see, Hefner and Conrad were married 
in a lavish ceremony at the mansion. Some 150 guests attended, 
sitting in neat rows of chairs in the front yard up by the wishing 
well where Hefner had proposed. The groom played pinball with his 
brother, best man Keith Hefner, for a half hour before the ceremony, 
but as he took his place to await his bride’s arrival, he realized he 
had forgotten to bring the ring. “Probably Freudian in some way,” 
he quipped. When he reappeared after dashing back up the stairs 
to retrieve it, the guests cheered. A nervous Conrad, after an attack 
of lightheadedness and crying, composed herself and came down the 
aisle smiling on the arm of her father. Both bride and groom grew 
tearful during the ceremony, but a lighthearted mood prevailed. 
When the presiding clergyman, the Reverend Charles D. Ara, 
asked the traditional question about heeding her husband, Conrad 
commented, “That may be going a little too far.” And when Hefner 
said his final “I do,” Ara called out jokingly to the crowd, “You heard 
him say that? Everybody out there — he said it!” 19 

With the ceremony complete, four hundred additional guests 
arrived for the reception held in a huge white satin tent covering 
the whole backyard and containing some ten thousand white roses. 
After enjoying champagne and caviar, guests adjourned to tables set 
with silver and crystal for an elaborate multicourse meal featuring 
smoked salmon, imported cheese, watercress salad, roasted baby 
potatoes, steak medallions, lamb, grilled baby chicken, and elabo- 
rate Viennese desserts. Famous guests such as Bill Cosby, Robert 
Culp, Angie Dickinson, Mark Hamill, James Caan, Berry Gordy, 
Tony Curtis, and Alexander Godunov strolled through the crowd. All 
of Hefner’s family and old friends — Shel Silverstein, FeRoy Neiman, 
Art Paul, John Dante, and Eldon Sellers, along with his Chicago 
club-hopping buddies from the late 1950s — were in attendance, 
as well as a trio of old girlfriends. As he posed for a photograph 
with Barbi Benton, Sondra Theodore, and Shannon Tweed, the 



400 


MR. PLAYBOY 


publisher put his arm around them and joked, “I may have made a 
terrible mistake.” 20 

Hefners marriage clearly demarcated the end of an era. “Holy 
Matrimony!” People magazine exclaimed on its cover, next to awed- 
ding photo of the happy couple. “The bride wore white. Hey, she wore 
clothes! Next week: Hell freezes over.” Indeed, this pivotal event in 
the late 1980s opened the door to a new stage in the publishers life. 
As he moved to adopt a more customary lifestyle and traditional 
set of values, Hefner interpreted his return from the frontiers of 
bachelor hedonism as a variation on the tale of the prodigal son. After 
starting out with marriage, then abandoning that for three decades 
of bachelorhood and sexual adventure, he “came full circle” to a kind 
of belated homecoming. Hefner embraced, even reveled in, the 
delights of family life. For the press and public, who had witnessed 
the publishers sexual escapades for the last three decades, it proved 
a fascinating sight. 21 


Ill 

As the 1990s began, the new, domesticated Hugh Hefner appeared on 
full display. Close friends and distant admirers alike saw a man who, 
to use one of his favorite words, had “reinvented” himself in the mold 
of a monogamous family man. Always concerned with explaining his 
life, the publisher reflected publicly, and at length, on this surprising 
reorientation. In one sense, Hefner, as well as many critics, agreed 
that his settling down reflected the traditionalist tone of the age. He 
described the notion of a Playmate for a lifetime as “right for this 
particular time, which is kind of conservative.” Analyzing his decision 
to wed, the New York Times concurred that “certainly the times are at 
play here, the AIDS-fearing, commitment-oriented times.” Another 
newspaper suggested, “the motto of the 1990s will become, ‘Lets go 
home.’ And the aging playboy, who lost a step or two when he suf- 
fered a mild stroke, will stay home to live the simple life A.B. (After 
Bunnies).” Hefner relished the irony, telling People, “Wouldn’t it be 
unique if my life became a symbol of the conservative decade ahead, 
just as it was a symbol of the swinging 60s and 70s?” 22 

Yet it was obvious to all that Hefner and his new bride were deeply 
in love. His happiness was so complete that “sometimes I think I must 



THE BRIDE WORE CLOTHES 


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be dreaming,” he told friends. He underlined the fairy-tale romance 
by arranging for a European nobleman to conduct a lighthearted cer- 
emony, complete with sword on the shoulder, declaring her Princess 
“Kimberella.” In an interview with the London Daily Express, Hefner 
expressed his complete contentment. “Before I met her, I had always 
had a sense that there would be another girl on the horizon and the 
promise of some new romance,” he explained. “But with her I feel 
totally fulfilled.” 23 

Hefner even approved as his beautiful, strong-willed young wife 
began overhauling decades of tradition at the Playboy Mansion. 
Kimberly Conrad Hefner, despite her appearance as a Playmate, was 
in many ways a traditional woman whom her husband occasionally 
compared to his mother — straight, conventional, strict. The break- 
neck speed of their romance had been a bit overwhelming — they 
had married within eighteen months of their first date — but now 
the young woman moved to establish herself as the mistress of the 
Playboy Mansion. She directed an upgrade of the mansion menu, 
instructing the staff of chefs and cooks to stress fresh ingredients 
and innovative cuisine. She redecorated several of the bedrooms, 
replacing a heavy, gaudy decorative style with lighter, more ele- 
gant elements. Kimberly also became a friend and defender of the 
mansion’s many Hispanic employees, whom she felt were treated 
too harshly by some of their supervisors. She even convinced Hefner 
to give up his satin sheets — leftovers from the orgiastic 1970s — and 
adopt sensible cotton ones. 24 

Kimberly also sought to tone down the raucous eroticism that 
had prevailed for the last two decades. She asked Hefner to send 
away the gaggle of female friends and Playmates who hung around 
the mansion as a matter of course. “She’s made it clear that this is 
her home and people just can’t wander in and out now like they 
always have,” said a Playboy spokesman. “They must be cordially 
invited.” Casual male friends on the prowl for beautiful women, who 
used the mansion as a kind of resort hotel — Kimberly described how 
she was “tired of seeing people I don’t even know at the breakfast 
table” — were politely notified that invitations were now required. 
Mrs. Hefner requested that guests refrain from public nudity at the 
pool and grotto. “I want this to be more like a real home,” she told 
the press. “The girls still come over, but they’re wearing their bathing 
suits. I think that’s nice.” The bare-breasted Barbi Benton bust that 



402 


MR. PLAYBOY 


sat in the library for many years disappeared into basement storage. 
“This is my house — not Barbi’s — so why should I have that sitting in 
my library?” she explained. Polite but firm, Conrad Hefner made it 
clear that a new ambiance of family and home would prevail. 25 

Critics and the public were fascinated by the publishers new 
lifestyle. Life magazine did a full spread titled “Mrs. Bunny,” which 
detailed in words and photos how the Hefner marriage ended “the 
30-year bachelorhood of Americas most publicized womanizer.” 
Chatelaine, the popular Canadian womens magazine, detailed 
monogamous married bliss at the mansion and concluded that in 
a society increasingly bored with recreational sex, it would be “the 
final triumph of Hef s career to live out his life in the company of a 
devoted helpmate.” Beporters from the Los Angeles Times blinked in 
disbelief at the sight of Mr. Playboy biting into a piece of apple cake 
with whipped cream frosting and joking, “This is what passes for sin 
at the Playboy Mansion West these days.” 26 

Perhaps the most famous commentary on revamped life at the 
mansion, however, came in Doonesbury, the award-winning cartoon 
series. Garry Trudeau, its creator, first poked fun at Hefner’s wedding. 
He pictured a loudspeaker announcement: “Out of respect for the 
sanctity of the occasion, we’d like to ask couples to refrain from using 
the grotto until after the ceremony.” As the revelers howled “Aww!” 
in dissent, one of them muttered sourly, “It’s her. She’s changed him.” 
Then another cartoon depicted a stricter announcement going out to 
scantily clad guests lounging at the pool. “May I have your attention 
please? From now on we’re going to have a few new rules around 
here. I’m getting tired of coming down every morning to a lot of 
faces I don’t even recognize,” said a female voice. “No more ‘friend 
of a friend,’ okay? Also, no more frontal nudity at breakfast. It’s a 
bit much. And no full frontal nudity until after 5 P.M.! In general, 
I expect everyone to be a whole lot more discreet, especially in the 
Jacuzzi! Everybody understand?” As a chorus of “Yes, Mrs. Hefner,” 
“Sorry, Mrs. Hefner,” came from the crowd, the same disgruntled 
guest grumbled, “There go the 70s.” 27 

The transformation of Hefner’s life became more pronounced 
with fatherhood. When the couple had first broached the subject 
of marriage, she had brought up the question of children and he 
had said “absolutely.” Within a few weeks of the wedding Kimberly 
became pregnant, and on April 9, 1990, Marston Glenn Hefner was 



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bom on Hugh’s birthday, an occurrence that seemed almost magical 
to his father. With both parents wanting another child close in age 
so they could grow up together, Kimberly quickly became preg- 
nant again, and Cooper Bradford Hefner arrived in the world on 
September 4, 1991. 28 

Hefner found true delight in his sons. Admitting that he had not 
been much of a father back in the 1950s with his first two children, 
he now vowed to make up for the lapse. He ordered that the yel- 
low diamond-shaped sign on the mansion driveway be changed from 
“Playmates at Play” to “Children at Play.” The sight of kids’ toys scat- 
tered about the floor of the great hall became a common one, and 
it moved him to tears. He played with the boys on the lawn, pushed 
them on their swing set, and read comic books to them. When they 
became fascinated with superheroes, he dressed in a Batman cos- 
tume for their entertainment. “In my entire life, I could not have 
imagined such happiness and fulfillment in this very traditional way,” 
Hefner confessed to the Los Angeles Times. “I cannot express the 
magic these two children have brought to my life.” 29 

The arrival of children strengthened Kimberly’s resolve to clean 
up the mansion. With maternal impulses at full throttle, she deter- 
mined to create a true family home and prune people she believed 
were sullying the atmosphere. She had several run-ins with Steve 
Powers, for instance, a longstanding mansion crony with a leg- 
endary playboy reputation. Tired of watching him bring a succession 
of young women to the mansion for seduction, she finally snapped 
when it got back to her that he had been seen having sex in the 
gamehouse over Easter weekend. Deeming this totally inappro- 
priate for a family setting, she confronted him and demanded an 
end to “the bimbo of the week.” Kimberly also clashed with John 
Dante, another old friend who had lived at the mansion off and on 
for twenty years and been part of Hefner’s sexual escapades in the 
1970s. A failed club owner with a penchant for running up gam- 
bling debts, Dante had become a kind of mansion pensioner who 
did not fit into the new family-oriented atmosphere. He departed 
in the summer of 1993. Kimberly also recast many mansion social 
events to revolve more around families and committed couples and 
less around recreational sex. At her request, Hefner discontinued 
the raucous Midsummer Night’s Dream party in 1994. The annual 
New Year’s Eve party switched from pajamas and negligees to black 



404 


MR. PLAYBOY 


tie and formal gowns, an event that Marston and Cooper, dressed in 
their own mini-tuxes, attended with their parents. The annual Easter 
Egg Hunt, originally a risque holdover from the 1970s where celebri- 
ties searched for eggs emblazoned with suggestive slogans, became 
a genuine child-centered party where kids combed the property for 
hand-decorated eggs and prizes. 30 

Hefner was too enthralled with his wife and children to take 
much heed. Proclaiming, “Eve managed to romanticize marriage and 
children,” he contended that his present situation belied the famous 
F. Scott Fitzgerald statement that there are no second acts in American 
lives. “Eve managed to have a third act, and it has turned out to be 
the most fulfilling of all,” he said. He also shaped a new perspective 
on the frantic, obsessive quality of his earlier, hedonistic days. Hefner 
now saw them as setting the stage for his final, mature appearance 
as a family man. His compulsive pursuit of sex and pleasure seemed 
aimed at trying to prove something to himself and others. “I confess 
that when I review some of the old film of myself, I start to squirm,” 
he told one interviewer, because he saw “a guy desperate to be desir- 
able to the opposite sex. A guy hungry for acceptance and love. A guy 
who could be full of shit.” But now he had determined to “put all the 
masks I used to wear, all the games I used to play, behind me,” he 
admitted to another. Kimberly and his young sons provided “the safe 
harbor that I was searching for all my life.” Confessing that he was 
more content than he had ever been, he saw his “September years” 
as providing a happily-ever-after ending to the movie of his life. 31 

In the early 1990s, Hefner, incredibly, became a spokesman for 
many of the values he had decried over the past four decades. When 
a reporter suggested that he had become a “traditional family-values 
kind of guy,” the publisher responded, “It’s true. In my heart, I think I 
probably always have been. I think I have come full circle to living life 
very similar to my parents.” In November 1993, Hefner appeared in 
back-to-back episodes of two family-friendly NBC sitcoms, Blossom 
and The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air. “The Playboy philosophy is expressed 
in away that is positive and family-oriented,” he explained of his new 
public posture. “Eve settled down and Playboy has become very main- 
stream.” He appreciated the ironic humor attending the situation. 
When People magazine asked if his new family-man image would 
hurt business, Hefner quipped, “Quite the contrary. America loves a 
redeemed sinner.” 32 



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Hefners family and friends were happy to see his newfound 
domestic contentment. Keith Hefner noted that his brother didn’t 
“seem to have anything left to prove, to himself or anyone else” and 
was “much more at peace than he’s ever been before. And much 
more open as a person.” Joe Piastre, the crusty longtime head of 
security at the mansion, joked good-naturedly about his boss’s new- 
found domesticity. “In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve signed in 
governors, mayors of large cities, movie stars, presidential hopefuls, 
police officers, sports stars, big-time industrialists, and so on,” he said. 
“I never thought I’d see the day when I signed in Dy-Dee Diaper 
Service. Shit! What’s this world coming to?” Even fellow playboy 
Steve Powers, on Hefner’s seventieth birthday in 1996, congratulated 
him on his ability “to transcend the life of the flesh to go for what is 
really important: romance, family, love.” 33 

Hefner’s late-life commitment to traditional values elicited 
much public commentary. Reporters flocked to the mansion to 
witness the remarkable images of Mr. Playboy ensconced in family 
bliss. “Hefner’s legendary bachelor days are definitely behind him. 
There’s a baby swing hanging not far from the tree that shades the 
wishing well where Hefner proposed to Conrad,” noted the Chicago 
Tribune. “A playpen fills a corner of the family gymnasium, where 
a life-sized photograph of Conrad hangs. The dog houses behind 
the well-stocked game room have moved to make way for the baby’s 
playground and swing set.” Periodicals churned out a long list of 
phrases and headlines to describe the mansion’s new domestic bliss: 
“Hef’s Haven,” “The Happy Hefners,” “F ather Knows Best is his way 
now,” “The Taming of a Playboy,” “All-American Dream Comes True 
for Hefner.” 34 

The new Hefner also received celluloid commemoration. In the 
fall of 1992, a documentary film chronicling his life appeared around 
the country. Titled Once Upon a Time , and produced by David 
Lynch and Mark Frost, it originally had been a half-hour segment 
in their 1990 American Chronicles television series. Hefner liked it 
so much that he commissioned a ninety-minute version for theaters 
and cable television. The publisher contributed significantly, and 
it emerged as something of an autobiography. The film presented 
his life as an evolution toward his present state of affairs, opening 
with scenes of his wedding as he commented on his discovery that 
“happiness could be found in something very traditional, in the love 



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MR. PLAYBOY 


of a special woman and a home and a family.” After examining his 
long career as a prophet of pleasure and liberation, the film closed 
with idyllic images of Hefner as he sat on the lawn with his wife and 
their two children. “What I found in the relationship with Kimberly, 
in the marriage, in at long last having a more traditional family and 
children, is that to some extent IVe come home again to values very 
similar to those of my parents. But I don’t think I could have got there 
without that other trip,” he reflected. “That trip was necessary for me 
to really find myself and make sense of it all.” 35 

The turn toward traditionalism in Hefners private life also influ- 
enced, albeit more subtly, his magazine and his company in the 1990s. 
After years of championing the cause of liberation during the Age of 
Aquarius and then battling a strong conservative backlash through- 
out the 1980s, Playboy moved toward an accommodation between 
the two. Like its founder, indeed, like much of America, Hefners 
magazine tacked toward the middle, seeking to carve out a welcom- 
ing space for the mature family man as well as the carefree bach- 
elor. It tried to make room for sexual expression and moral restraint, 
personal pleasure and meaningful relationships, self-fulfillment and 
family responsibility. 



20 


All in the Family 


I n September 1995, Playboy readers encountered “Classic Kimberly,” 
I a text-and-photo story depicting Kimberly Conrad Hefner as the 
I ideal modern woman: part loving wife, part devoted mother, and 
part erotic siren. Striking nude photos of the tall, voluptuous thirty- 
two-year-old with the light hair and penetrating blue eyes accom- 
panied her extensive reflections on life as Mrs. Playboy. “Hef and 
the kids are what my life is all about, not the houses and money 
and all the people that come and go,” she said. The scattering of 
children s toys, the jungle gym, and the swing set reminded every- 
one that while the Playboy Mansion was her husbands workplace, it 
had now become a family haven. Hollywood was a tough town, she 
admitted, but memories of smaller, more intimate communities with 
“a different mentality, with people helping people and family values” 
guided her. “Kimberly is all about family,” the story concluded. “Hef, 
Marston and Cooper are blessed indeed.” 1 

This article exemplified how Playboy trimmed its sails to capture 
the prevailing cultural winds in America during the last decade of the 
twentieth century. In the 1990s, a chastened liberalism from the 1960s 
sought reconciliation with the fervent conservatism of the 1980s. 


407 



408 


MR. PLAYBOY 


The result was a swing toward the middle in American life that 
influenced politics, domestic life, and social values. Hugh Hefners 
embrace of family beautifully reflected this powerful social impulse, 
but so too did the broad content of his magazine. Playboy, a cultural 
flagship par excellence, embodied much of the new moderation as it 
navigated into America s mainstream at the end of the century. Much 
like Bill Clinton, the dynamic, youthful president elected in 1992 who 
made this phrase a centerpiece of his campaign, Hefner and Playboy 
reached out to enrich the lives of “those who work hard and play by 
the rules.” 


I 

In 1988, the publisher and marketing director of Good Housekeeping 
sat on a flight discussing their magazine and current social trends. 
The upcoming decade, they mused, a new turn: after the upheavals of 
the 1960s and 1970s, and the conservative yuppie materialism of the 
1980s, the 1990s would see a return to family and home, yet in a fash- 
ion that encouraged more flexible career goals, a greater sense of social 
responsibility, and the pursuit of “quality” experiences and humane 
values. By 1990, Good Housekeeping had launched a national adver- 
tising campaign centered upon this “new traditionalism.” Proclaiming 
a “decade of decency,” it portrayed Americans as striving to “look for 
what is real, what is honest, what is quality, what is valued, what is 
important.” Family Circle joined the parade. Its advertising campaign 
of 1992 pictured cultural rebels coming full circle. Photos of young 
women with diamond engagement rings through their noses, and of 
young men sporting long hair, tattoos, and leather jackets while holding 
a baby, appeared next to this slogan: “Lately, family values have been 
showing up in the most unlikely places.” 2 

These venerable magazines captured something essential in the 
popular mood of fin de siecle America. Following the cultural earth- 
quake of the Aquarian Age and the reactionary tsunami of the Reagan 
years, many Americans indeed yearned to combine hearth and home 
with personal liberation, social idealism with personal responsibil- 
ity. Politically, this impulse helped sweep “New Democrat” Bill 
Clinton, with his embrace of both a welfare state safety net and an 
ethic of hard work and market competition, into the White House. 



ALL IN THE FAMILY 


409 


Socially and culturally, it influenced the shaping of what the sociolo- 
gist Alan Wolfe, in an insightful book of the same name, described as 
“one nation, after all.” The vast majority of middle-class Americans, 
Wolfe argued persuasively, had come to embrace a worldview that 
lay between the extremes of 1960s revolution and 1980s reaction: 
“an insistence on a set of values capacious enough to be inclusive but 
demanding enough to uphold standards of personal responsibility.” 
Weary of both hectoring fundamentalist preachers and victim-fixated 
leftists, the mass of citizens had forged a pragmatic, centrist, nonideo- 
logical, largely nonjudgmental consensus in the 1990s that sought to 
reconcile tradition and diversity, religious belief and tolerance, family 
and feminism, social obligation and personal fulfillment. 3 

A clear indicator of Americas new traditionalism came in the 
1994 release of Sex in America , a massive survey of sexual behavior 
and values by a University of Chicago research team. The exhaustive 
questioning of some thirty-four hundred subjects revealed that most 
Americans, while their erotic horizons had broadened, still led con- 
ventional sex lives. The vast majority of men and women lived happily 
in a sexual universe dominated by “monogamy, marriage, and the 
missionary position,” as Time observed. Fidelity trumped adultery, 
monogamy trumped promiscuity, moderate rates of sexual inter- 
course trumped orgies and abstinence, and marriage trumped the 
single life. Most Americans, it seemed, had been jolted but not trans- 
formed by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, then sobered 
but not converted by the antisexual piety of the Moral Majority in 
the 1980s. While practicing and enjoying sex more than their pre- 
decessors, modem Americans nonetheless did so largely within the 
confines of traditional restraints. 4 

Hefner and his magazine reacted ambivalently to this evidence of 
American sexual conformity. “Our Puritan roots are deep,” Hefner 
commented in Time. “Were fascinated by sex and afraid of it.” In 
a private memo to Playboy editors, he contended that the survey 
reflected the conservative prejudices and AIDS hysteria of the Reagan 
era but, nonetheless, accepted the study’s core finding that “we are 
conventional in our sex lives.” Playboy sniffed that the survey demon- 
strated how many Americans “embrace conformity, the average. They 
run screaming from excess, from experimentation.” But this impulse 
overlooked evidence of “just how rich and diverse [American] sex is.” 
Hefner added, “it is the diversity of our sexual behavior that is the 



410 


MR. PLAYBOY 


real message.” This complex reaction suggested that Hefner and his 
magazine, like most Americans, were trying to combine respect for 
sexual tradition with enthusiasm for sexual innovation. 5 

In fact, Hefners warm new family life appeared as a billboard 
for Americas new traditionalism. The domestic aura of the Playboy 
Mansion, as many observers noted, embodied an image “in sync with 
the We Decade of the 1990s.” In the words of USA Today, “the trend 
is marriage, monogamy, and moderation. Hefner was the symbol of 
sexual freedom of the baby boomers. Now that generation is hit- 
ting 40 and looking beyond transitory pleasures. Sexuality is not as 
important. Hefner is finally joining the ranks.” 6 

Playboy, beginning its fifth decade of publication, responded to 
the spirit of the times. The magazine had become an institution. 
“ Playboy has emerged as a survivor, rolling along with the chang- 
ing social landscape,” noted the New York Daily News in 1993. But 
survival depended on keen social and cultural instincts. Building 
both upon its liberationist past and its occasional conservative over- 
tures during the previous decade — admittedly, more sullen than 
heartfelt — the magazine subtly positioned itself in the vanguard of 
the new traditionalism. 7 

Christie Hefner took the lead. She observed that as more of the 
sixties generation (and Playboy subscribers) became parents, much 
“focus in the 90s will be on the continuing evolution of the relation- 
ship between men and women in a family environment.” The Playboy 
enterprise needed to become an “adult Disney” focused on “home- 
centered Baby Boomers,” and her father’s new lifestyle was a natural 
fit. “Obviously, the Mansion is no longer bachelor heaven,” she wrote 
in a 1992 memo. “Here’s a place where two people who’ve committed 
themselves to each other, and are raising a family, live. . . . We need 
some language that links personal dreams and individual freedom 
and social responsibility ... to Hef’s personal life.” 8 

Michael Perlis, hired as Playboy’s new publisher in 1990, joined 
in. “I’m as mainstream as they come,” he told a media journal. Perlis 
sought to distance Playboy even further from skin magazines and place 
it among upscale competitors such as Esquire, Gentleman’s Quarterly, 
Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated. He helped lure Volkswagen back 
as an advertiser and sought new ads from Detroit automakers, men’s 
fashion companies, and consumer electronics. Inside Media described 
his agenda succinctly: “In short, re-mainstream Playboy.” 9 



ALL IN THE FAMILY 


411 


A revised magazine gradually took shape. Many long-standing 
elements remained in the 1990s as the Playboy Forum continued to 
tackle controversial social issues and the Playboy Interview interro- 
gated many of the most talked-about people in public life, including 
comedian Jerry Seinfeld, filmmaker Spike Lee, political guru James 
Carville, billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates, sports star Shaquille 
O’Neal, and writer Salman Rushdie. The magazine continued annual 
features such as “Sex in Cinema,” college football and basketball prog- 
nostications, and the Rock and Jazz poll, as well as the monthly Party 
Jokes and surveys of fashion and the newest consumer items. Playboy’s 
fictional offerings upheld the high standards of the past, with stories by 
authors such as John Updike and Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley and 
William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates and Jay Mclnerney. It explored 
the latest trends, such as the emergence of Generation X, the youthful 
cadre that was filled with “antiboomer rage,” addicted to pop culture, 
and given to an intensely ironic, despairing view of modern life. 10 

Playboy’s erotic features also maintained its familiar mixture of 
celebrity and the girl next door. Pictorials appeared on supermodels 
Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson, actresses Sharon Stone and 
Uma Thurman, and pop culture icons such as the spurious “Swedish 
Bikini Team” and “The Babes of Baywatch” from the popular tele- 
vision series. An unusually high number of Playmates in the 1990s 
went on to fame and fortune: Anna Nicole Smith (May 1992), Jenny 
McCarthy (October 1993), and Kelly Monaco (April 1997) among 
them. Most notably, Playmate Pamela Anderson, Miss February 
1990, became the leading sex symbol of the age. She quickly seized a 
career in television and movies, had a much-publicized marriage with 
rocker Tommy Lee, and appeared on the cover of Hefner’s magazine 
eight times by the end of the decade. 

For all of these familiar sights, however, Playboy slowly sidled up 
to the new traditionalism in the 1990s. One of the first signals came 
in its political orientation. Early in the decade, Hefners magazine main- 
tained a muckraking, cynical liberalism rooted in the dissenting tradition 
of the 1960s and 1970s. It ran a regular monthly political column by 
the liberal analyst Robert Scheer, for example, and criticized Charles 
Keatings savings and loan scandal. Hefner’s occasional political com- 
mentaries underscored Playboy’s left-liberal stance. He condemned 
the Republican Party for its “conservative agenda based on repres- 
sion, prohibition, and retribution,” upheld the happy advance of 



412 


MR. PLAYBOY 


sexual liberation, and insisted on the protection of personal freedom 
and the First Amendment. 11 

By mid-decade, however, Playboy became more apolitical. Its 
stringent, leftist critiques of mainstream America disappeared and 
pieces on public affairs increasingly were relegated to the Playboy 
Forum, while Scheer’s column stopped running after the February 
1996 issue. The magazine chose Leonard Maltin, a Disney movie 
expert and regular critic on Entertainment Tonight , as Playboys film 
reviewer in September 1998 to replace the retiring Bruce Williamson. 
With Hefner settling down with marriage and children, the maga- 
zine also nixed “World of Playboy,” a regular feature for years that 
had highlighted exuberant social activities at the mansion. Overall, 
Playboy increasingly returned to its 1950s roots as lifestyle, rela- 
tionships, popular culture, and entertainment moved forward and 
crowded leftist politics into the wings. 

Trendy, let s-enjoy-life topics such as computer technology preoc- 
cupied the magazine. With characteristic aplomb, Playboy covered the 
arrival of the DVD (digital versatile disc), which promised to sweep 
the field for video and computer use. It led readers through the diz- 
zying maze of new gadgetry (cellular phones, portable fax machines, 
voice-mail machines, pagers, laptop computers with modems), the 
new electronic jargon (CD-BOM, DAT, Photo CD, VCR, Caller ID), 
and the breathtaking possibilities of the Internet. 12 

Typically, the magazine translated popular fascination with comput- 
ers into the language of sex. Several nude pictorials of female enthu- 
siasts surpassed the fantasies of any computer geek hunched over his 
PC keyboard in some dark cubbyhole. “The moment we asked the 
women of the Net to reveal themselves, sexy GIFs and JPEGs poured 
into our digital mailbox from around the world,” noted “Women of 
the Internet” in April 1996. That same issue highlighted Miss April, 
Gillian Bonner, who had founded her own software development 
company and “hopes someday to create digital erotic fantasies that 
are more explicit and expansive.” 13 

Playboy s neotraditionalism appeared even more clearly in its 
approach to relationships between men and women. In 1991, the 
magazine joined with Roper to conduct a survey of the modern male, 
his values, and his attitudes, and released the findings early the next 
year. The Playboy/Roper “Man Track” study indicated that men 
increasingly sought to combine traditional masculine impulses with 



ALL IN THE FAMILY 


413 


an enhanced awareness of womens needs and family responsibilities. 
They wanted to be perceived as sensitive and caring, yet remained 
very interested in work, sports, and sex. They sought an armistice in 
the war between the sexes and better communication with women. 
In response, Playboy launched “Mantrack: A Guys Guide to Changing 
Times,” a new monthly feature that charted this new sensibility. The 
first installment examined the surprising extent of male-female agree- 
ment on issues such as date rape and sexual harassment. It then noted 
that men were caught between the demands of work and the desire 
for more leisure time, but most of them valued labor over play. It 
reported that “the man of the Nineties may be getting sensitive” as 
males from eighteen to forty-four ranked the top three criteria for a 
good relationship in the following order: love, a good sexual relation- 
ship, the ability to talk about feelings. 14 

Playboy worked to define modern maleness throughout the 1990s. 
A new monthly column by Asa Baber discussed the many quandaries 
facing men and defended them against feminist attacks. “Whenever 
you hear masculinity defined as innately deadly and brutal, remind 
yourself that most of us are truly good men,” he said. “We love our 
families, work hard to protect them, cherish our children, and live 
honorably.” The magazine offered advice on manly endeavors, includ- 
ing a tongue-in-cheek take on how to create an image as a rugged 
outdoor type. An impression of mountain biking expertise demanded 
familiarity with the technology of the sport but “don’t mention any- 
thing about the bike’s basket or its cute little bell.” With caving, the 
macho poseur should casually note his fearless physical endurance 
and remember that “stalactites pierce your noggin; stalagmites look 
like the award they give the Proctologist of the Year.” 15 

Playboy revised its traditional instruction to men about attracting 
and seducing women, now stressing the need for understanding the 
complex relationship between the sexes. Moreover, in a break with 
its past, much of this advice now came from women. Clarissa Pinkola 
Estes, author of the best-selling Women Who Run with the Wolves: 
Myths and Stones of the Wild Woman Archetype, gave pointers on 
how to understand essential feminine inclinations, desires, and values. 
Julie Rigby critiqued women’s talk shows on daytime TV to give read- 
ers the inside scoop on how, in the world of Oprah and Sally Jessy, 
a man was “dressed down as a bad-smelling, bed-hogging, money- 
wasting, two-timing bozo who doesn’t deserve to be trusted.” In an 



414 


MR. PLAYBOY 


essay on the rules of “postmodern romance,” Tracey Pepper focused 
on practical guidelines for conversation, apparel, second dates, the 
goodnight kiss, and sexual etiquette. Some basic rules: “Have a car, 
don’t live with your parents, don’t get shitfaced, wear underwear, 
and don’t have an ass that is smaller than your date’s.” 16 

The new traditionalist male inspired a huge advertising and mar- 
keting campaign for the magazine in the latter half of the 1990s. 
Taking the old slogan, “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?” the ads 
presented modern Playboy readers as educated, computer-sawy, 
healthy and active, well groomed, and interested in leisure endeavors 
such as cars, vacations, good restaurants, stylish clothes, sports, travel, 
and romance. As one ad put it, “He works hard during the week and 
takes his weekend fun seriously.” While the series portrayed men 
with attractive young women as they stood on a yacht or sat at a casino 
gambling table, they also stressed their commitment to relationships. 
“Last week he booked an entire restaurant for his girlfriend’s birth- 
day,” said one. “He’s a man who knows how to celebrate romance,” 
said another. “For Valentine’s Day he booked the executive suite and 
ordered roses and vintage champagne before he proposed.” 17 

Thus Hefner and his magazine engaged the neotraditionalist male 
who had emerged from the maelstrom of Aquarian Age revolution 
and Reaganite reaction. Even more strikingly, Playboy jumped into 
the so-called “culture wars” of the 1990s as an enthusiastic combat- 
ant against political correctness. Just as it had opposed the moralistic 
pieties of the Religious Right, it now opposed the cultural pieties 
of the Radical Left with its unforgiving demands for PC behavior. 
Playboy and Hefner, drawing upon many of their long-standing 
principles, articulated a libertarian progressivism in the 1990s that 
stressed the greatest possible personal freedom within the boundar- 
ies of tradition. 


II 

Early in the decade, Playboy walked a treacherous political tight- 
rope. On one side loomed the conservative forces of the Moral 
Majority, with whom Hefner and his magazine continued to battle. 
The Reverend Donald Wildmon, for example, an old enemy from the 
1980s, persisted in conducting a campaign that persuaded companies 



ALL IN THE FAMILY 


415 


such as ABC, Pepsi, Honda, and Chrysler to stop advertising in 
Playboy. Hefner, mocking the evangelical activist as the “American 
Ayatollah,” sustained opposition through a direct-mail campaign to 
advertising executives, support for First Amendment pressure groups 
such as People for the American Way, and an eventual lawsuit against 
Wildmon. 18 

On the other side appeared the leftist forces of political correct- 
ness, who loathed Playboy for its attitude toward women. By the early 
1990s, they had captured many college campuses, media centers, and 
even some corporate headquarters, creating a welter of elaborate reg- 
ulations governing sexual actions and offensive speech against women 
and minorities. Hefner also battled this censorious spirit, condemn- 
ing speech codes and sex regulations as repressive, even authoritar- 
ian, violations of free speech. The infamous “Sexual Offense Policy” 
of Antioch College, for instance, which mandated that every step of 
sexual intimacy — kissing, touching the breasts, touching the genitals, 
intercourse — required separate, clear verbal consent, at the risk of 
expulsion, drew his ire. “I see this whole politically correct phenom- 
enon as a new form of Puritanism,” he declared. “The notion that 
women are always victims and men are always predators and need 
‘guidelines’ issued to them so they need to know how to behave on a 
date seems to me to be very much the opposite of liberation.” 19 

Entering the emotional “culture wars” that exploded between 
these ideological opposites in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hefner 
and Playboy sought a third way. This effort had a model. In the politi- 
cal realm, President Bill Clinton pursued a “New Democrat” strategy 
of “triangulation” that sought to synthesize elements of Democratic 
welfare-state regulation with Republican principles of free-market 
individualism while distancing itself from hard-liners in both camps. 
In the cultural realm, Hefner and his advisers shaped a similar strat- 
egy that sought a middle way between disciples of the Moral Majority 
and zealots of the Radical Left. The result was a cultural centrism that 
was equal parts progressive reform, libertarian freedom, and consum- 
erist prosperity. 20 

A clear indicator of Playboy ’ s cultural triangulation appeared in 
its January 1992 special section devoted to analyzing the decade just 
under way. “Wake Up and Smell the Nineties” humorously pilloried 
the previous era as one of conservative greed and corruption. Cringing 
at “the appalling decade that just ended,” it listed the assaults that 



416 


MR. PLAYBOY 


came from Ronald Reagan, James Watt, federal deficits, supply-side 
economists, Ivan Roesky, junk bonds, T. Roone Pickens, and the Fox 
network (for good measure, it also threw in “nine Rarbara Mandrell 
comebacks, 243 John Candy movies, and Regis Philbin”). Items to 
be thrown out in a “Nineties Garage Sale” included fur coats, gran- 
ite desk accessories, and The Art of the Deal , by Donald Trump. 
“The nicest thing about the Nineties will be how little they resemble 
the Eighties,” it concluded. 21 

Right next to this conservative-skewering piece sat “Navigating 
the Nineties: The PC. Survival Guide,” which turned in the opposite 
direction to mock the prigg